But more than a testament to the violence of lynching, the memorial forces visitors to reckon with the way the U.S. government tacitly approved of such violence for decades. More than tacitly: The memorial exposes how both Southern and Northern politicians used nostalgia and false history to preserve the system of white supremacy that stood at the core of their political power.
Nowhere is this clearer than the fight over anti-lynching laws. On numerous occasions from the end of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, civil rights workers like Ida B. Wells and activists in the NAACP pushed federal lawmakers to act against lynching. In the 1920s, the NAACP focused its efforts on the first federal anti-lynching law, the Dyer bill, which called for federal prosecution of those responsible for lynchings and compensation for lynching victims. Thanks to NAACP efforts, the House of Representatives passed the Dyer bill — which then became the first in a string of anti-lynching laws to die in the Senate, filibustered by Southern Democrats.
A blatantly false retelling of the American past helped filibustering lawmakers justify their opposition to this legislation. It undergirded their fight against another measure, the Costigan-Wagner bill, that twice went down to defeat during the 1930s in the Senate. Repeatedly, Senate opponents explained their hostility by reminding listeners of the purported horrors of Reconstruction.
The false historical narrative they put forth went something like this: In the years after the Civil War, the federal government, having assumed the bad intentions and rebellious spirit of white Southerners, had come to the aid of “negroes” with disastrous results. The story of vengeful carpetbaggers, working in concert with ignorant and sometimes malicious blacks, squelching the honest efforts of Southern whites to rebuild after the Civil War, was, by the 1930s, one of the most hardened myths about the American past.
It was the story enshrined in countless textbooks and in movies like “Birth of a Nation.” But it proved especially powerful in the hands of politicians seeking to defeat anti-lynching laws.