Museums Helping Change Happen

Our brief in-class discussion of Federal anti-lynching laws motivated me to do a little more research to find out if any anti-lynching laws were ever passed.  What I found was disappointing.  Anti-lynching laws were introduced and passed several times by the House of Representatives in the 1920s, 30s, 40s.  However, the filibustering efforts of several powerful Southern senators killed these bills, preventing any anti-lynching legislation ever being passed by the Federal government.[1]  The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the increased involvement of the Federal Government in racial issues essentially ended the push for official anti-lynching legislation.

However, on June 13, 2005 the United States Senate passed resolution 39 “apologizing to the victims of lynching and the descendants of those victims for the failure of the Senate to enact anti-lynching legislation.”[2]  Sadly this resolution, considered by some to be a conciliatory act, was only signed by 89 Senate members.[3]

Yet while the signing of this resolution was perhaps too little, too late, its passage should inspire museums to create and sponsor challenging exhibits.  One reason given for the passage of this resolution was the publication of Hilton Als and James Allen’s book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America which “helped bring greater awareness and proper recognition of the victims of lynching” [4]  Without Sanctuary was published in 2000 but received national attention in 2002 as a traveling museum exhibit featuring the postcards and images collected by James Allen.  The willingness of museums to promote Allan’s work led to a public discussion of a painful subject and reinforces the role of the museum as a powerful change agent.

[1]Robert Siegel, “Anti-Lynching Law in U.S.” All Things Considered.




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