On this dayJan 21, 1948
Mississippi Senator and Segregationist James Eastland Successfully Campaigns to Block Anti-Lynching Bill
On January 21, 1948, Senator James Eastland of Mississippi led a successful campaign to block an anti-lynching bill, which would have held members of lynch mobs and local law enforcement officers accountable for their role in racial terror lynchings. Before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing, Senator Eastland—an ardent segregationist and supporter of white supremacy—proclaimed that “time has cured” lynchings and refused to acknowledge the role that law enforcement had played for decades in the lynchings of thousands of Black Americans.
Senator Eastland, a wealthy plantation owner who served as U.S. senator from Mississippi from 1942 to 1978, built his political career on promoting white supremacy, defending racial segregation, and blocking civil rights bills. His campaign to block anti-lynching legislation in the Senate was supported by dozens of Southern white politicians who successfully filibustered every anti-lynching bill since the first one was introduced in 1918.
At the January 21 hearing, Senator Eastland launched unfounded attacks on the constitutionality of the bill, which would make lynching a federal crime, and disparaged the U.S. Supreme Court as “not judicially honest.” In contending there was no need for an anti-lynching bill, Senator Eastland incorrectly declared that “we don’t have any lynchings now.” Though the number of racial terror lynchings had declined by 1948, more than four dozen lynchings were recorded during the 1940s, including at least six in the senator’s home state.
Senator Eastland’s attempt to downplay the history and continuing threat of lynching was particularly blatant given that Mississippi is among the states with the highest number of documented racial terror lynchings from 1877 to 1950, and considering Senator Eastland’s own family ties to that violence. In 1904, the same year Eastland was born, his father, Woods Eastland, led a lynch mob that captured and brutally lynched a Black man named Luther Holbert and an unidentifiable Black woman without trial or due process of law. The two lynching victims were mutilated and burned alive before a crowd of 600 picnicking spectators, and no one was ever punished for their deaths. Mr. Holbert had been accused of killing the future senator’s plantation-owning uncle, for whom he was named.
As the federal government refused to protect Black Americans, racial terror lynchings remained an ongoing threat to Black communities for nearly a century. Victims of racial terror lynchings were hanged, shot, stabbed, drowned, and burned alive, killed by mobs who never faced prosecution for their actions. It was not uncommon for lynch mobs to seize their victims from jails, prisons, courtrooms, or police custody, and in many cases, law enforcement officials were complicit or active participants in lynchings.
The anti-lynching bill that came before the Senate in 1948 proposed to hold law enforcement accountable for lynchings of people who were in the custody of law enforcement. Due to the efforts of Southern white politicians like Senator Eastland, this bill failed. Out of more than 200 anti-lynching bills introduced in Congress, only three passed the House and none passed the Senate until 2019.
In 2005, the Senate formally apologized for failing to pass anti-lynching legislation, but in 2020, an anti-lynching bill that overwhelmingly passed in the House was stalled and ultimately blocked in the Senate by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Representative Bobby Rush re-introduced anti-lynching legislation in January 2021.
Between 1865 and 1950, more than 6,500 Black women, men, and children were killed in racial terror lynchings throughout the U.S. To learn more about the history and legacy of racial terror lynching, read our report, Lynching in America.