When the Government Can’t Help
Today’s blog is written by Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist in the Research Services Division, Textual Records at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland
There are many episodes of disappointment in American history when disparate groups of citizens seek out the interference of help from the Federal Government and are turned away because there is no way the government can become involved, or a path to resolving the problem has not been carved out. The following documents from the Straight Numerical Files, 1904-1974 (National Archives Identifier 583895) series, highlight cases where the Department of Justice (Record Group 60) was either unable to intervene because of jurisdiction or no laws existed that would make disturbances a federal case.
This telegram, addressed to the President of the United States, asks for an investigation into the recent “race disturbance” that occurred in Rosewood, Florida. The Rosewood massacre was a racially charged episode that occurred during the first week of January 1923, in which eight people were killed and a whole African American community was burned, razed, and wiped off the map – never to be rebuilt again. The violence was widely reported in papers across the country, reaching this concerned group of ministers in Tennessee. However, this call for justice could not be answered by the Government. In a reply to the telegram, the Assistant Attorney General of the United States acknowledges receipt, states that “there is no federal action which can be taken in the race disturbance at Rosewood, Florida,” and advises that “the matter should be called to the attention of the State officials.”
There are also boxes and folders full of correspondence in the Straight Numerical Files regarding lynchings of African Americans throughout the country. In the letter below, the Pittsburgh Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) calls to the attention of the President, that since entry into World War I, 247 African Americans have been victims of mob violence. Many letters such as this were sent to the Federal Government with lynching statistics to try and call for national attention on this extensive problem.
Letters were also sent to the Government detailing individual cases of lynching – either detailing the story of a black soldier recently returned home from the War, or sending in newspaper clippings of occurrences that got coverage in local newspapers. Each time, the correspondent received a letter much like the one below.
The case referred to the Justice Department’s response is Hodges v. United States (203 U.S. 1), 1906. The Court limited the power of Congress to make laws under the Thirteenth Amendment, effectively shutting the Government out of cases involving the civil rights of those the amendment protected – mostly African Americans in the South. It is overwhelming to think how many letters were sent from the Attorney General’s office with the phrase “it is impossible to intervene” in the span covered in these three documents, from 1918 to 1923. And it continued for years after. The Government could not help.
The rampant lynching that was carried out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century sparked an early arm of the Civil Rights movement, spearheaded by Ida B. Wells-Barnett. These efforts resulted in proposed legislation in Congress for anti-lynching laws, all of which failed to pass through the Senate (the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill passed in the House of Representatives three times from 1922-1924). In 2005, the Senate issued an apology for blocking anti-lynching legislation.