Senate apology historic, but disappointing

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated Columnist

Ordinarily, I am not conflicted about apologies. I’m for them.

But the feelings are more complex with last week’s Senate apology for decades of inaction while an estimated 4,700 Americans, most of them black, were lynched.

As they died, skinned alive, burned alive, dancing at the end of ropes, as white people gathered to watch mob murder with the same festivity you would a county fair, as souvenir postcards of mutilated corpses were traded and hearts, bones and testicles harvested for mementos, as local sheriffs and state legislatures looked the other way, as newspapers ran headlines like, “A Good Time Is Had By All As Negro Is Put To Death,” as madness compounded madness, seven presidents asked Congress to enact a statute to make lynching a federal crime.

The Senate always said no. Southern senators argued that such a law would infringe upon “state’s rights,” and loose bestial black men to put bestial black hands on virginal white women. Asked for moral leadership, the Senate repeatedly failed to provide.

Eighty senators signed on as co-sponsors of last week’s resolution of remorse for that failure, which was championed by Republican George Allen of Virginia and Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. The Washington Post reports that the 20 holdouts included — and I’m sure you’re shocked to hear this — Mississippi Republicans Trent Lott and Thad Cochran.

I’d love to have heard them explain themselves to 91-year-old James Cameron, the only known survivor of a lynching. I once interviewed him about that night, 75 years ago in Marion, Ind., when two friends invited him to join them in a stick-up. He told me how he lost his nerve and ran. How he was three blocks away, still running, when he heard the gunshots that killed Claude Deeter, a white man.

He told me how “lawmen” stomped him ’til he signed a confession. How rocks slammed against the jailhouse walls and sledgehammers pounded the door. How a white mob beat his friends to death and then came for him. How the black men in the cell with him fell to their knees, hugging white men’s legs, kissing white men’s hands, begging for mercy. How one of them finally pointed him out.

The rope was around his neck when a voice from the crowd — God, he says — proclaimed him innocent and the mob let him go.

Such was the criminal injustice system in 1930. Seventy-five years later, though seldom that blatantly extra-legal, it seems to seek much the same end.

What other conclusion can you draw from the study that says that, while black people account for 13 percent of regular drug users, they represent 35 percent of drug-possession arrests and 55 percent of convictions? What other deduction can you make after a report that says a black drug defendant is 48 times more likely to be imprisoned than a white one with the same record? What else can you think when you see statistics that one is four times more likely to be executed for killing a white person than a black one?

And what else are you to believe when people, with an oblivious faith in their own fair-mindedness, tell you the fault lies not in systemic racism but in the inherent criminality of black people?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not upset an apology was issued.

But, the moral cowardice of 20 holdout senators aside, how much political courage is required in 2005 to say that it is wrong to stand by as mobs murder people? What does it tell you that we must get almost 50 years beyond lynching before we can muster the fortitude to call the sin a sin?

What happened last week was a historic gesture, an appropriate gesture, but in the end, only a gesture. For it to be more requires not remorse about yesterday’s injustices, but resolve about today’s.

Courage isn’t courage unless there’s something at stake.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com