Sen. John Coit Spooner and Sen. Benjamin Tillman
Senate Debates after the Brownsville Incident
(January 1908)

Excerpt transcribed from the Congressional Record.

In the summer of 1906, a battalion of black soldiers were stationed in the mostly-white community of Brownsville, Texas. On August 13, 1906, with racial tensions high, unknown assailants shot a local bartender and a policeman. Brownsville whites accused the black soldiers, and military authorities demanded that each soldier either confess or identify the culprits. When none would, they were charged with insubordination, and President Theodore Roosevelt had them all dishonorably discharged. Later investigates showed that the soldiers had not been involved in the shootings. In 1972, President Richard Nixon retroactively granted them honorable discharges.

Excerpted below is an exchange that developed while the Senate was investigating President Roosevelt's actions. Sen. John Coit Spooner (of Wisconsin) and Sen. Benjamin Tillman (of South Carolina) exchange views on lynching.

(NB. Paragraph numbers apply to this excerpt, not the original source.)

Sen. Spooner:
{1}Now, Mr. President, I believe in law. I believe that wherever a man perpetrates a crime, or a crime is committed and the perpetrator or suspected perpetrator can be identified, the law should seize him. I believe he is entitled to a trial before sentence. I believe he entitled to a day in court.

{2}I am opposed, Mr. President, to any man making himself judge, juror, and executioner. I look upon it as shocking beyond expression in civilized communities, Mr. President, for the populace to seize a human being, charge him with crime, drag him to a tree protesting his innocence, and hang him or burn him at the stake. . . .

{3}I was shocked the other day here by the statement of the Senator from South Carolina justifying it and supporting its continuance. If there is one man under the sky who ought not to do it it is a maker of the laws which govern the people.

{4}Mr. President, this is not an attack nor is it intended to be upon the Senator from South Carolina. It is a plea for good government, orderly government, real liberty -- not the liberty of one man, but the liberty of all. What is liberty? It is not license. Liberty was once well defined to be "Freedom to do that which the law permits." That is what liberty is. I say again that any man here or elsewhere who encourages lynching, murder, lawlessness, will have much to answer for, and the higher his position and the weightier his influence the more he will have to answer for.

Sen. Tillman:
{5}Have I ever advocated the lynch law at any time or at any place? I answer on my honor, "Never!" I have justified it for one crime, and one only, and I have consistently and persistently maintained that attitude for the last fourteen years. As governor of South Carolina I proclaimed that, although I had taken the oath of office to support the law and enforce it, I would lead a mob to lynch any man, black or white, who had ravished a woman, black or white. This is my attitude calmly and deliberately taken, and justified by my conscience in the sight of God.

{6}Mr. President, the Senator from Wisconsin speaks of "lynching bees." As far as lynching for rape is concerned, the word is a misnomer. When stern and sad-faced white men put to death a creature in human form who has deflowered a white woman, there is nothing of the "bee" about it. There is more of the feeling of participating as mourner at a funeral. They have avenged the greatest wrong, the blackest crime in all the category of crimes, and they have done it, not so much as an act of retribution in behalf of the victim as a duty and as a warning as to what any man may expect who shall repeat the offense. They are looking to the protection of their own loved ones.

{7}The Senator from Wisconsin prates about the law. He erects the law into a deity which must be worshiped regardless of justice. He has studied law books until his mind has become saturated with the bigotry which ignores the fundamental principle in this Government: "Law is nothing more than the will of the people." There are written laws and unwritten laws, and the unwritten laws are always the very embodiment of savage justice. The Senator of Wisconsin is incapable of understanding conditions in the south or else he has lost those natural impulses which for centuries have been the characteristics of the race to which we belong. . . .

{8}Look at our environment in the South, surrounded, and in a very large number of counties and in two States outnumbered by negroes -- engulfed, as it were, in a black flood of semi-barbarians. Our farmers, living in segregated farmhouses, more or less thinly scattered through the country, have negroes on every hand. For forty years these have been taught the damnable heresy of equality with the white man, made the puppet of scheming politicians, the instrument for the furtherance of political ambitions. Some of them have just enough education to be able to read, but not always to understand what they read. Their minds are those of children, while they have the passions and strength of men. Taught that they are oppressed, and with breasts pulsating with hatred of the whites, the younger generation of negro men are roaming over the land, passing back and forth without hindrance, and with no possibility of adequate police protection to the communities in which they are residing.

{9}Now let me suppose a case. Let us take any Senator on this floor -- I will not particularize -- take him from some great and well-ordered State in the North, where there are possibly twenty thousand negroes, as there are in Wisconsin, with over two million whites. Let us carry this Senator to the backwoods in South Carolina, put him on a farm miles from a town or railroad, and environed with negroes. We will suppose he has a fair young daughter just budding into womanhood; and recollect this, the white women of the South are in a state of siege; the greatest care is exercised that they shall at all times where it is possible not be left alone or unprotected, but that can not always and in every instance be the case. That Senator's daughter undertakes to visit a neighbor or is left home alone for a brief while. Some lurking demon who has watched for the opportunity seizes her; she is choked or beaten into insensibility and ravished, her body prostituted, her purity destroyed, her chastity taken from her, and a memory branded on her brain as with a red-hot iron to haunt her night and day as long as she lives. . . .

{10}In other words, a death in life. This young girl thus blighted and brutalized drags herself to her father and tells him what has happened. Is there a man here with red blood in his veins who doubts what impulses the father would feel? Is it any wonder that the whole countryside rises as one man and with set, stern faces seek the brute who has wrought this infamy? Brute, did I say? Why, Mr. President, this crime is a slander on the brutes. . . . And shall such a creature, because he has the semblance of a man, appeal to the law? Shall men cold-bloodedly stand up and demand for him the right to have a fair trial and be punished in the regular course of justice? So far as I am concerned he has put himself outside the pale of the law, human and divine. . . . Civilization peels off us, any and all of us who are men, and we revert to the original savage type whose impulses under any and all such circumstances has always been to "kill! kill! kill!"

{11}I do not know what the Senator from Wisconsin would do under these circumstances; neither do I care. I have three daughters, but, so help me God, I had rather find either one of them killed by a tiger or a bear and gather up her bones and bury them, conscious that she had died in the purity of her maidenhood, than have her crawl to me and tell me the horrid story that she had been robbed of the jewel of her womanhood by a black fiend. . . .

{12}I realize that there are millions of good negroes, if they are let alone and not taught heresies and criminal thoughts and feelings and actions. I should like to see this good, easy, good-for-nothing people given a chance to live. Give them justice; give them equal rights before the law; enable them to get property and keep it, and be protected in its enjoyment; give them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, provided their happiness does not destroy mine.

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