Law and the Jungle

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Law and the Jungle  (1921) 
by Harvey E. Newbranch
Awarded the 1920 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, first published in Omaha, Nebraska

There is the rule of the jungle in this world, and there is the rule of law.

Under jungle rule no man's life is safe, no man's wife, no man's mother, sister, children, home, liberty, rights, property. Under the rule of law protection is provided for all these, and provided in proportion as law is efficiently and honestly administered and its power and authority respected and obeyed.

Omaha Sunday was disgraced and humiliated by a monstrous object lesson of what jungle rule means. The lack of efficient government in Omaha, the lack of governmental foresight and sagacity and energy, made the exhibition possible. It was provided by a few hundred hoodlums, most of them mere boys, organized as the wolf-pack is organized, inflamed by the spirit of anarchy and license, of plunder and destruction. Ten thousand or more good citizens, without leadership, without organization, without public authority that had made an effort to organize them for the anticipated emergency, were obliged to stand as onlookers, shamed in their hearts, and witness the hideous orgy of lawlessness. Some of them, to their blighting shame be it said, respectable men with women and children in their homes, let themselves be swept away by the mob spirit. They encouraged if they did not aid the wolf-pack that was conspiring to put down the rule of law in Omaha—that rule which is the sole protection for every man's home and family.

It is over now, thank God!

Omaha henceforth will be as safe for its citizens, and as safe for the visitors within its gates, as any city in the land. Its respectable and law-abiding people, comprising 99 per cent of the population, will see to that. They have already taken the steps to see to it. The first step was taken when the rioting was at its height—taken belatedly, it is true, because they had placed reliance on the public authorities to safeguard the order and good name of Omaha. The blistering disgrace of the riot has aroused them. There will be no more faltering, no more fickleness, no more procrastination, no longer the lack of a firm hand. The military aid that has been called in is only temporary. It serves to insure public order and public safety for the day, for the week. But the strengthening of the police force of the city, its efficient organization under wise and competent leadership, is a policy that public sentiment has inaugurated and that it will sternly enforce. As to that there will be neither equivocation nor delay. Nor will there be any hesitancy or laxness in the organization, and rigid use if need be, of civic guards to keep the streets and homes and public places of Omaha secure.

The citizenship of Omaha will be anxious that the outside world should know what it was that happened and why it happened. Let there be no mistaking the plain facts. The trouble is over now. It was a flare-up that died as quickly as it was born. Omaha is today the same safe and orderly city it has always been. It will be safer, indeed, hereafter, and more orderly, because of the lesson it has so dearly learned. And the flare-up was the work—let this fact be emphasized—of a few hundred rioters, some of them incited by an outrageous deed, others of them skulkers in the anarchistic underbrush who urged them on for their own foul purposes of destroying property and paralyzing the arm of the law. If the miserable negro, Brown, had been removed from Omaha in time, as he should have been; if, failing to remove him, the public authorities had taken vigorous measures to prevent the congregation and inflaming of the mob, the riot would never have occurred. An organized and intelligently directed effort in advance would have preserved the good name of Omaha untarnished. It would have prevented the lynching. It would have saved our splendid new court house from being offered up in flames, its defense with the mob-victim in it, a costly sacrifice on the altar of law and order. There would have been no thought, even, of the amazing attempt to lynch the mayor of Omaha, bravely and honorably discharging his duty as chief magistrate in resisting the wolf-pack.

It would be impossible to speak too strongly in condemnation of the rioters or in the uncompromising demand for their stern and swift punishment, whoever they be, wherever they can be found. They not only foully murdered a negro they believed to be guilty. They brutally maltreated and attempted to murder other negroes whom they knew to be innocent. They tried to lynch the mayor. They wantonly pillaged stores and destroyed property. They burned the court house. In the sheer spirit of anarchy they pulled valuable records from their steel filing cases, saturated them in gasoline, and burned them. They burned police conveyances and cut the fire hose, inviting the destruction by fire of the entire city. Their actions were wholly vile, wholly evil, and malignantly dangerous. There is not a one of them who can be apprehended, and whose guilt can be proved, but should be sent for a long term to the state prison. And toward that end every effort of every good citizen, as well as every effort of the public authorities, from the humblest policeman to the presiding judge on the bench, must be directed. There can be no sentimentalizing, no fearful hesitancy, no condoning the offense of these red-handed criminals. The pitiful bluff they have put up against the majesty of the law, against the inviolability of American institutions, must be called and called fearlessly.

To the law-abiding negroes of Omaha, who, like the law-abiding whites, are the vast majority of their race, it is timely to speak a word of caution as well as a word of sympathy and support. Any effort on the part of any of them to take the law into their own hands would be as culpable and as certainly disastrous as was the effort of the mob. In the running down and maltreating of unoffending men of their color, merely because they were of that color, they have been done odious wrong. They naturally and properly resent it. They naturally and properly resent having been confined to their homes, in trembling fear of their lives, while red riot ran the streets of the city. But their duty as good citizens is precisely the same as that of the rest of us, all of whom have been outraged and shamed as citizens. It is to look to the law for their protection, for their vindication, and to give the law every possible support as it moves in its course. The law is their only shield, as it is the only shield of every white man, no matter how lowly or how great. And it is the duty of all, whites and blacks alike, to uphold especially the might of the law—to insist, if need be, on its full exercise—in protecting every colored citizen of Omaha in his lawful and constitutional rights.

For the first time in many years—and for the last time, let us hope, for many years to come—Omaha has had an experience with lawlessness. We have seen what it is. We have seen how it works. We have felt, however briefly, the fetid breath of anarchy on our cheeks. We have experienced the cold chill of fear which it arouses. We have seen, as in a nightmare, its awful possibilities. We have learned how frail is the barrier which divides civilization from the primal jungle—and we have been given to see clearly what that barrier is.

It is the Law! It is the might of the Law, wisely and fearlessly administered! It is respect for and obedience to the Law on the part of the members of society!

When these fail us, all things fail. When these are lost, all will be lost. Should the day ever come when the rule that was in Omaha Sunday night became the dominant rule, the grasses of the jungle would overspread our civilization, its wild denizens, human and brute, would make their foul feast on the ruins, and the God who rules over us would turn His face in sorrow from a world given over to bestiality.

May the lesson of Sunday night sink deep! May we take home to our hearts, there to be cherished and never for a moment forgotten, the words of the revered Lincoln:

"Let reverence of the law be breathed by every mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap; let it be taught in schools, seminaries and colleges; let it be written in primers, spelling books and almanacs; let it be preached from pulpits and proclaimed in legislative halls and enforced in courts of justice; LET IT BECOME THE POLITICAL RELIGION OF THE NATION."


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1959, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.