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PUNISHMENT FOR THE CRIME OF LYNCHING
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 21, 1934
UNITED STATES SENATE,
Present also: Hon. Edward P. Costigan, Senator from the State of Colorado; Hon. Robert F. Wagner, Senator from the State of New York; and Hon. Thomas F. Ford, a Representative from the State of California.
Senator VAN NUYS. The committee will be in order. ready to proceed.
STATEMENT OF REV. ASBURY SMITH, CHAIRMAN MARYLAND
Senator Van Nuys. Rev. Asbury Smith, representing the Maryland Antilynching Federation, will be heard first this morning. You may proceed, Reverend Smith, if you are ready.
Mr. Smith. Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I am appearing this morning as chairman of the Maryland Antilynching Federation. This organization is a federation of 32 social and religious organizations in the State of Maryland. I will leave with the committee for your record a list of the constituent organizations.
In October 1931 Matthew Williams was lynched in Salisbury, Md. I was born and raised near this city and graduated from Salisbury High School. In October 1933 George Armwood was lynched at Princess Anne. My father was raised near this town. Both of these communities are well known to me.
I have here a record of the major events in the case of the lynching of George Armwood and the attempt to prosecute the members of the mob. It is brief and although later testimony will no doubt give it in more detail, I think it well to place it before the committee at this time. The order of events in the lynching of George Armwood is as follows:
October 16: George Armwood accused of assault upon an aged woman, Mrs. Mary Dentson, was arrested in Princess Anne and taken to the Baltimore jail.
October 17: He was returned to Princess Anne 5 days before the grand jury was to be called (3 a.m.).
October 17: Rumors of a mob bent on lynching were so persistent that reporters took a 5-hour drive and arrived long before the lynching.
October 17: George Armwood lynched while 21 State police stood by without using firearms (8:30 p.m.).
November 17: Attorney General Lane presented evidence against members of the mob to States Attorney Robbins requesting their arrest with a public hearing before a magistrate. This evidence had been gathered from the State police on duty at the lynching.
November 17: Robbins refused to follow Lane's request.
November 28: Governor Ritchie ordered out the militia and arrested four of the accused men.
November 28: The mob was so violent that instead of arraigning the men before a magistrate they were brought to Baltimore.
November 29: The four men were released on a writ of habeas corpus.
January 24: The grand jury met and failed to return a true bill against any member of the lynching mob.
I do want to draw a few conclusions in this case that to me are beyond reasonable doubt. Local officials deliberately exposed George Armwood to the danger of lynching. The State police failed to use adequate force to protect the prisoner. Since the lynching local officials have used the power of their office to protect rather than to prosecute members of the mob. The calling out of the militia by Governor Ritchie was excellent national publicity for our State and for our Governor. - It, however, utterly failed in its purpose of forcing a public hearing, for the bayonets of the soldiers were overpowered by the brickbats of the mob. The attorney general himself barely escaped injury from the mob that shouted " lynch Lane.”
In Maryland, as in all other States, local law has broken down in its attempt to punish lynchers.
In the testimony presented yesterday much time was taken up trying to define a mob. I can see the difficulty in framing a definition that punishes lynchers in Princess Anne that might not be applied unjustly to the gang warfare of Chicago. I have no satisfactory legal definition, but in common use we all recognize the act. I am sure the good legal minds of the committee can solve this problem without emasculating the bill.
There seems to be some objection to the provision of this bill that penalizes the entire community for the act of the lower element of the community. Any man who has ever lived in a lynching community would not stress this objection. The citizens of Wicomico and Somerset Counties almost without exception approve the lynching of Matthew Williams and of George Armwood. They all agree that lynching in general is wrong, but under certain conditions, such as existed at Salisbury in October 1931 and at Princess Anne in October 1933, lynching is not only justifiable but highly commendable. I know this to be true from intimate personal contact. I further know it to be true, because all Eastern Shore newspapers take that attitude. It is also borne out by the fact that not a single person from the Eastern Shore has spoken publicly against the two lynchings that occurred there. Indeed, the sentiment of the Eastern Shore is so strong in approval of the lynching that its citizens actually conducted a boycott against Baltimore business concerns because the Baltimore Sun strongly condemned these two lynchings.
In practically all communities in which a lynching occurs it has the overwhelming approval of the people. I would like to repeat that sentence, because I think it is largely the heart of the argument: In practically all communities in which a lynching occurs it has the overwhelming approval of the people. This explains the inability to get witnesses to testify, grand juries to indict, State's attorneys to prosecute, judges to expedite procedure, or petit juries to convict.
The question was raised, can the Federal court be any more successful than the State courts in the control of lynching In Maryland the Federal courts could have helped greatly. On the Eastern Shore lynching is generally approved, but in Baltimore, where our Federal court sits, the situation differs. Here some do approve lynching, but the majority are far enough from the scene of tension to disapprove it. Therefore, in a Federal court in Maryland lynchers might be convicted or negligent officers of the law prosecuted.
There are times when an entire State may approve a lynching. Then criminal action in a Federal court will be almost as useless as State action is at present. It is in such a situation as this that we would need section 5 of the proposed bill. In this section the question of guilt or innocence is not an issue. The mere fact that a lynching had occurred would place a financial penalty upon the community and would act as a deterrent against future lawlessness.
I hope that you will report this bill favorably, including section 5, which, to my mind, is even more important than section 3 or section 4.
Senator Van Nuys. Those people who seemingly favor lynching and are supposed to be of the better element of the community, if they were charged with crime, would be among the very first to claim the protection of the law, would they not! Is not that true?
Mr. SMITH. Quite right, sir.
Mr. SMITH. That is quite right, sir. Last night, if I may say it, I was discussing this question in a small group. Some of the men had been to the scene of the lynching the day after it occurred and one said you could smell the odor of burned flesh of the victim even that long after the event. He said, “The people of the Eastern Shore are all hellish fiends." I told him that, having lived there, I knew that was not quite right; that they were ordinary citizens, but that in time of stress such as this any community loses its power of self-control and becomes temporarily deranged through the stress of the emotions under which the citizens are placed. That to my mind is one reason why we need to bring to bear the national sentiment of the country as a whole.
Senator DIETERICH. You say that section 5 is the most important part of the bill?
Mr. SMITH. Yes.
Senator DIETERICH. That is the section which provides that any county in which a person is put to death by a mob or riotous assemblage shall forfeit $10,000. Do you think that should be levied regardless of the attitude of the officers and citizenship of the particular county?
Mr. Smith. Yes, sir; I do.
Senator DIETERICH. Do you think that comports with your sense of justice?
Mr. SMITH. That is my feeling.
Senator DIETERICH. In other words, you want to penalize the people of a county and the officers of the county even though they have done everything in the world they could to discourage and prevent these acts?
Mr. Smith. My reason for feeling that way is as I have stated.
Senator DIETERICH. If you put the penalty at $25,000 do you think it would be still more effective?
Mr. Smith. Perhaps so. It would need to be $25,000 or perhaps $100,000 in a city like Chicago.
Senator DIETERICH. Do you think that money should be collected from the taxpayers of the county, not at fault in any way, and turned over to the representatives of the deceased ?
Mr. Smith. Quite right, sir.
Senator DIETERICH. Regardless of any attitude of the citizenship of the county?
Mr. SMITH. I think the fallacy in your argument is that the community is divided between a sentiment that condemns lynching and a sentiment that approves it.
Senator DIETERICH. I am not talking about the highly inflamed communities that you have just mentioned. You are favoring a bill which is general in its application all over the United States. I am talking about law-abiding communities. I am talking about communities where the officers have an abiding desire to enforce the law, to protect the life and liberty of the citizens. I am talking about the influence of this section upon that community and not upon the inflammatory community about which you have been talking, where you say they all act in concert.
Mr. SMITH. That I think is a question of the definition of a mob. As I said, I do not find myself able to distinguish between an inflammatory community and a community that is not inflamed, but I do think the distinction is there between them. I do not know how to state it in satisfactory legal terms.
Senator DIETERICH. You think that ought to be done regardless of the character of the person who might suffer from mob violence ?
Mr. Smith. I think that has no weight at all. A man is a man and is entitled to the equal protection of the law.
Mr. DIETERICH. No matter if he was a convict escaping from a penitentiary! If he was a convict escaping from a penitentiary and a mob had followed him up after his escape and after he had killed some officer of the penitentiary in escaping, and a group of citizens went after him and caught him and killed him without due process of law, you think the county should be fined $10,000 and that the money should be given to his representatives? I am not talking about color now at all.
Mr. Smith. I understand that point.
Senator DIETERICH. I am talking about citizens. Do you think that is a proper provision in the bill?
Mr. Smith. I think your illustration is not very much in point, in that such a situation rrely arises.
Senator DIETERICH. I am talking about the bill you are proposing to have enacted into law and put upon the statute books.
Mr. Smith. I should say that any person not legally or lawfully deputized, who takes a life, should subject his county to this penalty. He should be deputized if he is going to take life. Senator DIETERICH. That is your individual opinion? Mr. Smith. That is my individual opinion: yes, sir. Senator Van Nuys. Thank you, Mr. Smith; that is all.