To answer that, we need to think for a moment about the South’s position in the American political system at the time. Jim Crow’s disenfranchisement of black Americans (and many whites, too) gave the reactionary Southern elites an unbreakable grip on the region’s politics in a way they hadn’t gotten since before the Civil War. With little competition, Southern legislators could hold their seats for decades, bringing power and, crucially, seniority — the empire’s currency in the House and Senate.
In addition, the Southern legislators acted as a bloc, both in Congress and within the Democratic Party, where they continued to reside and to which they would tie their political allegiances well after World War II. As historian David M. Potter argued in his 1972 book, “The South and the Concurrent Majority,” all this resulted in the Jim Crow South being given a sort of veto over national policies, in a way that was no different than the system of “simultaneous majorities” proposed in the first half of the 19th century by pro-slavery theorist and long-serving Senator John C. Calhoun.
Here’s how it worked. Within the Democratic Party, under the then presidential election rules, the South could veto any candidate deemed hostile to its interests when voting as a bloc. Within Congress, the scrutiny of committees could destroy legislation that threatened white power and autonomy of the South before it reached the ground, or force lawmakers outside the South to bend to their preferences. Any bill that somehow survived the House could be strangled in the Senate using the filibuster, which has happened time and again with anti-lynching (and other civil rights) legislation.
There’s something funny here, if you haven’t seen it yet.
The prevailing justification for institutions like the Senate or rules like the filibuster—or, for that matter, the entire edifice of American federalism—is that they protect the rights of the minority from the looting of an overbearing majority. But it is in the story of the long and frustrated effort to make lynching a federal crime—to protect, in Dyer’s words, “the lives of United States citizens from lynching laws and Mafia violence”—that we see the reverse. We see how the American system can, and often does, protect tyrannical and overbearing minorities like the Jim Crow architects from the only power, the federal government, that can defend and enforce democratic equality across the country.
We should celebrate the passing and signing of an anti-lynch law. It is truly a historic achievement. We should also take a moment to reflect on the long struggle to make this law a reality, as well as how our system itself was the main obstacle to protecting the lives and livelihoods of its own citizens.