Senators Worth Remembering
Democrat Edward P. Costigan had a short, but extremely productive and influential tenure representing Colorado in the United States Senate. Costigan served only one term from 1931 – 1937 and is now mostly forgotten, but his courage in fighting for a federal statue to outlaw lynching puts him in a category of Senators worth remembering. Costigan’s biographer, Fred Greenbaum, titled his book about the Denver lawyer turned politician Fighting Progressive and Costigan certainly was. Educated at Harvard, Costigan settled in Denver in 1900 and immediately took up the progressive cause helping form a Progressive Party, running unsuccessfully for governor, representing the interests of miners and unions and eventually winning a Woodrow Wilson appointment to the Tariff Commission.
With the Great Depression crushing Colorado and the rest of the country, Costigan ran for the Senate in 1930 promising to work for economic recovery and relief for those hardest hit by the disastrous economic conditions. Once in the Senate, Costigan joined other western progressives in advocating relief measures and he became, if anything, more liberal than Franklin Roosevelt after FDR’s election in 1932.
Costigan was impatient with the pace of economic recovery and pushed for more sweeping effort to aid the unemployed, but it was the championing of anti-lynching legislation hat perhaps assures his place as an early day proponent of civil liberties and worthy of being a Senator worth remembering.
Time magazine noted in a 2002 article that, “lynching evolved into a semiofficial institution of racial terror against blacks. All across the former Confederacy, blacks who were suspected of crimes against whites–or even “offenses” no greater than failing to step aside for a white man’s car or protesting a lynching–were tortured, hanged and burned to death by the thousands.”
Lynching became a form of domestic terrorism against blacks and by one estimate more than 4,700 lynchings took place from the late 1800 to the 1960’s.
Costigan was outraged by the crime and was determined to see the federal government pass a law. With another liberal Democrat, Robert Wagner of New York, Costigan drafted the Costigan-Wagner Act that sought to require local authorities to protect their prisoners from the mob, while making lynching a federal crime. Oregon’s great Sen. Charles McNary was Costigan’s chief Republican ally on the legislation. Costigan worked tirelessly on the bill in the early 1930’s, possibly to the detriment of his own health, but could never get it passed.
In Senate debate arguing for the anti-lynching legislation, Costigan eloquently said, “no man can be permitted to usurp the combined functions of judge, jury and executioner of his fellow men; and whenever any State fails to protect such equal rights, I submit the Federal Government must do its utmost to repair the damage which is then chargeable to all of us.”
Roosevelt offered only tepid support for the federal anti-lynching concept, perhaps on practical and Constitutional grounds, but also because he was fully aware that such an “anti-state’s rights” measure could erode Democratic Party support in the still “solid south.” FDR was also correctly convinced that southern Democrats would filibuster the legislation putting his own legislative agenda at risk.
Costigan’s health deteriorated to such a degree that he was unable to seek re-election in 1936 and died in 1939 having never realized his dream to end one particularly heinous crime of domestic terrorism. It wasn’t until 1946 that a federal civil rights conviction was gained against lynching. Edward P. Costigan of Colorado is another Senator worth remembering.