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Costigan-Wagner Bill

A Time of Pervasive Lynchings

Between 1882 and 1968, 3,446 African Americans and 1,297 whites, were lynched in the United States according to the Tuskegee Institute. Thanks to hard work of Edward Costigan and Robert F. Wagner, federal anti-lynching legislation was passed aimed at the prosecution of vigilante justice in the form of lynch mobs.

NAACP hoped that the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 would bring an end to lynching. Two African American campaigners against lynching, Mary McLeod Bethune and Walter Francis White, had actively and successfully campaigned for his presidential victory. Bethune later served as an advisor to the President as well as the Vice President of NAACP. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had also been a long-time opponent of lynching. Though he opposed lynching, President Roosevelt did not have the political will to end it at the federal level.

Northern democrats push for anti-lynching bill

New York Democratic Senator Robert F. Wagner and Senator Edward Costigan, who represented Colorado, agreed to draft an anti-lynching bill in 1934. The legislation proposed federal prosecution of participants in lynch mobs including public officials and law enforcement officers, who failed to protect the victims in their custody. The bill aimed to end mob rule and vigilante justice that targeted the Black community.

In 1935, there was mounting pressure and lobbying to persuade Roosevelt to support the Costigan-Wagner bill. However, Roosevelt refused to speak out in favor of the bill. He argued that it would alienate the white voters in the South and cause him to lose the next election. The bill died without ever going to the floor of the Senate for a vote.

The lynching of Rubin Stacy

Even with images of the lynching of Rubin Stacy in newspapers, as well as The Crisis and Life magazine, Roosevelt's decision to not pursue federal anti-legislation did not waver. Stacy was a 37-year old farm worker in Fort Lauderdale, Florida accused of attacking a white woman. Six deputies were escorting Stacy to Dade County jail in Miami on July 19, 1935, when he was taken by a white mob and hanged by the side of the home of his accuser, Marion Jones.

The New York Times later reported that a "subsequent investigation revealed that Stacy, a homeless tenant farmer, had gone to the house to ask for food; the woman became frightened and screamed when she saw Stacy's face."

Congress fails to act on anti-lynching bill again

The Costigan-Wagner Act received support from many members of Congress but the Southern opposition managed to defeat it. Just as with the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, Congress failed to take the lead in eradicating lynching. Nevertheless, the national debate and pressure from groups like NAACP brought greater national attention to the extrajudicial practice of lynching.

Learn more about the history of lynching in the United States.