It may have gone unnoticed, but in pre-pandemic America earlier this year anti-lynching legislation nearly passed Congress and was expected to be signed into law by President Donald Trump.
We mention that today because of the reference to "the red summer" of 1919, a marked uptick in lynchings that year, by Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a commentary by Cal Thomas on this page last week. Thomas had sought out the black educator for his reaction to the death in Minneapolis police hands of George Floyd.
While curious if Chattanooga saw any such incidents in that troubling year — it did not — we came across the courageous pleadings of one Rev. J.G. Robinson, a black Chattanooga presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church who was said to have been run out of town because he had the temerity to write then-President Woodrow Wilson to suggest the passage of an anti-lynching law.
That his pleadings fell on deaf ears then was hardly surprisingly during what Gates — host of "Finding Your Roots" on PBS — described as "the apex of the legitimization of Jim Crow" laws. But, before the Senate unanimously passed legislation last year and the House overwhelmingly did so this year (though the bills must be linked before the president's signature), Congress had failed to pass anti-lynching legislation 200 times, beginning with a bill introduced in 1900 by U.S. Rep. George Henry White, R-North Carolina, the only black member of Congress at that time.
But it was Robinson who intrigued us.
His July 1919 letter to Wilson, reprinted in The New York Times and elsewhere, suggested he was afraid the death toll of mob violence on blacks was likely to climb without the passage of an anti-lynching law.
"I fear, Mr. President," Robinson wrote, "before the negroes of this country will again submit to many of the injustices which we have suffered, the white man will have to kill more of them than the combined number of soldiers that were slain in the great world war."
By the end of the year, according to the annual report of the Tuskegee Institute, his fear of increased killings had been borne out. Lynchings across the country that year increased from 64 in 1918 to 82. Of that number, 77 were in the South, and 75 of the victims were black. Tennessee had only one, but Georgia ignominiously led the nation with 21, followed by Mississippi and Arkansas with 12 apiece.
The crimes said to have been perpetrated by the black lynching victims included murder and rape but also such allegations as "incendiary talk," "writing an improper letter," "keeping company with a white woman," "being found under a bed," "making boastful remarks" and "insulting a woman."
A November 1919 pamphlet Robinson published, "Why I Am An Exile," said following the reprinting of his letter he had been threatened by organizations with names such as "Skull and Bones, with the Blood Knife," "Newly Organized Ku Klu Boys" and "White Caps."
"Because of some statements in this letter," he wrote, "I was forced to leave Tennessee by 'Ku-Klux,' nightriders and other like ruffians. ... I am now an exile from my state."
Robinson's original letter to Wilson reminded the president he had been received at the White House some 16 months earlier representing the bishops and members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. At that time, he said, he had the pledge of loyalty from, but also the grievances of, the country's 12 million blacks.
Some "400,000 negroes went, undismayed, and helped to win the war," he wrote. He said he personally "went into six states and during religious revivals and in great liberty bond and war savings and thrift stamp drives I told my people that Mr. Wilson gave us the assurance that full democracy will be enjoyed by all Americans; we rolled up our share of the money, etc., to prosecute the war."
Robinson went on to request that lynching and mob rule be federal crimes and that the president "help to wipe from the statute books of the South" undemocratic election laws and see that just juries are seated.
And, in a statement that might have been made by Washington, D.C., protesters shouting against Floyd's death today, he wrote, "A few temporary guards on the streets of Washington and huddling a number of negroes in the city workhouse will not stop the negro from expecting and demanding his rights."
Yet nothing in the letter, he told the Chattanooga Times after receiving warnings following the reprinting of his letter, "looks like threat, or race antagonism."
That it took 120 years to be at the cusp of an anti-lynching law is an abomination. Wiping any vestige of any prejudicial thought from everyone's mind will take a little longer and be a lot harder. That said, as Robinson reminded us 101 years ago, "all Americans" should have the "assurance that full democracy will be enjoyed."