A Convenient Distraction

New York Yankees relief pitcher Joba Chamberlain wipes his forehead after the eighth inning of Game 4 of baseball's American League Championship Series against the Texas Rangers Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010, in New York. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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This column was written by Michael Tomasky.
So Bill Frist wants an apology from his Senate colleague, Dick Durbin of Illinois, for remarks that supposedly equated the U.S. detention facility for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with Nazi and Soviet death camps.

It's a particularly timely word that Frist invokes. So let's consider the question in a larger context.

On June 13, the Senate apologized for America's history of lynching and for not acting as a body to denounce lynchings while they were taking place. This should have been uncontroversial, and for about nine-tenths of the Senate, it was. But eight Republican senators couldn't see their way clear to support this measure, originated by Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu and Virginia Republican George Allen. Most notably, both Mississippi senators, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, opposed it.

Landrieu pushed the measure because she knows her state carries an indefensible legacy on the question of lynching, being among the five states with the most lynchings in American history. But even so, Louisiana is no Mississippi.

From 1880 to 1930, according to one study of that era of rampant mob justice, white hate mobs lynched about 2,500 African Americans -- one citizen a week, every week, on average for 50 years. The great state of Mississippi was the lynching leader, with 462 victims during that time. Mississippi also had the highest number of victims per 100,000, 52.8, making it proportionally the undisputed lynching champion. The number of lynchings began to fall after the 1930s, but another 119 people were lynched there through 1968.

This is not rhetorical hyperbole of the sort Durbin stands accused of engaging in. These are irrefutable historical facts. Yet to the senators of Mississippi, they invite no introspection, bear no scrutiny, and occasion no apology. "I don't think I'll get in the business of apologizing for acts that previous Senates took," said Cochran, who holds the Senate seat once occupied by James Eastland, one of the most virulently open racists in the Senate's history.

Yes, Eastland was a Democrat, and the Democratic history on this question is far from admirable, even putting aside the "Dixiecrats"; Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to speak out on behalf of an anti-lynching bill that Democratic Senators Robert F. Wagner and Edward Costigan pushed. But Democrats at least recognized that lynchings represented an American holocaust, and they apologized.