The way we were–IV

A phrase in our recent posting about Rep. O. B. Whitaker’s 1929 anti-death penalty speech in the Missouri House caught our attention because of what it inferred. A newspaper account of Whitaker’s opening remarks on the day before his final speech noted Whitaker had told the House there had been “23 legal executions in Missouri since 1911.”
Legal executions.
Missouri has a long record of illegal executions. Retired Criminal Justice Professor Harriet Frazier at the University of Central Missouri recounted at least 227 Missouri lynchings in her 2009 book, Lynchings in Missouri 1803-1981.
That’s right. 1981. July 10. Think Skidmore. Think Ken Rex McElroy, town bully that a mob decided to eliminate as he sat in his pickup truck. Who fired the fatal shots has been a community secret for more than three decades.
The archives at Tuskeegee Institute list 122 lynchings in Missouri from 1882 through 1968. The statistics are compiled for all states and go up to 1968 because, we suspect, they include Civil Rights Era murders. Some sources we have consulted indicate Missouri’s last racially-motivated lynching was on January 25, 1942 when a Sikeston mob grabbed a black man from the city jail, Cleo Wright, dragged him through town behind a car, and set him on fire, his charred remains left in the street for three hours.
Sam Blackwell wrote in the Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian in 2001 that “a number of Sikeston’s most prominent citizens participated in the lynching…” Prosecutor David Blanton could not convince a county grand jury to indict anyone.” The case later went before a federal grand jury in St. Louis. Blackwell reported it was “the first time the federal government had involved itself in a civil rights case.” Nobody was charged in that proceeding either.
And that gets us to the story of Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer, a Republican, a native of Warren County, first sent to Congress in 1910 but rejected after two terms only to be re-elected in 1914 and remaining in office until March 4, 1933—inaugurations of Presidents and members of Congress were held in March in those days. He’s remembered because he sponsored an anti-usury law motivated by financial institutions charging excessive interests rates and was the sponsor of the Dyer Act that made transporting a stolen vehicle across state lines a federal crime.
But he’s also remembered for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. Dyer represented a majority black district in St. Louis at the time and was appalled when whites in St. Louis and East St. Louis attacked blacks in disputes over jobs.
Race riots had broken out in St. Louis and East St. Louis in 1917. He was aware of lynchings in southern states (one source says 59 percent of the nation’s lynchings in that time were in the south). And he grew increasingly upset that local officials seemed unable or unwilling to do anything about prosecuting those leading them. Dyer’s proposal making lynching a federal felony was part of the Republican Platform in 1920. President Harding endorsed it, going to Birmingham, Alabama to do so.
When Dyer introduced his bill in 1918, he noted that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that established individual rights was being violated with every lynching. He noted Congress had approved child labor laws to protect children and Prohibition, to protect society from the evils of alcohol. He asked his colleagues why Congress should not protect the lives of American citizens against mob violence and lynchings as it had protected children and adults from social evils. “Are the rights of property, or what a citizen shall drink, or the ages and conditions under which children shall work, any more important to the Nation than life itself?” he asked.
Dyer’s bill languished for three years before the United States House passed it in 1922, ’23, and ’24. But it ran into a voting bloc of white southern Democrats in the Senate all three years, was filibustered, and never was allowed to come to a vote.
Dyer died on December 15, 1957 at the age of 86.
Almost 48 years later, the United States Senate passed a resolution sponsored by Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and George Allen of Virginia apologized for not passing the Dyer anti-lynching bill “when it was most needed.”
Missourinet reporters have covered all seventy legal executions since they resumed in 1989. Reporters at Missourinet affiliates covered the last illegal execution, in 1981. It has been more than 32 years since Missouri’s last lynching.
No, make that “Missouri’s most recent lynching.”
Reporters with a sense of history know better than to declare something is the last of anything, especially as long as human beings are involved.

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