The US will finally make lynching a federal crime, after more than a century of attempts. C&P looks at the long road to justice.
It only took 122 years to declare lynching a federal hate crime, after a long-sought bill passed Congress this week.
The Emmett Till Antilynching Act passed the US House with three “no” votes. It passed the Senate unanimously, and is now awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature into law.
“Although no legislation will reverse the pain and fear felt by those victims, their loved ones, and Black communities, this legislation is a necessary step America must take to heal from the racialized violence that has permeated its history,” Sen. Cory Booker said.
Lynching, in which a mob publicly executes a person without trial, has been used as a weapon of terrorism by white supremacists throughout US history. Often accompanied by torture and sexual violation, Black citizens were targeted in particular.
George White, Lone Visionary
In 1900, US Rep. George Henry White, a North Carolina congressman, put forth a spirited argument to make lynching a federal offense, as state authorities, especially in the South, readily overlooked crimes committed by whites against their Black neighbors.
Born in Bladen County, White had seen the results of the bloody Wilmington Massacre little over a year before. In 1898, white mobs turned out duly elected Black officials, burned Black businesses and openly murdered Black citizens in the streets. No perpetrators were ever prosecuted in what is the only successful coup in US history.
“I tremble with horror for the future of our nation,” White said, “when I think what must be the inevitable result if mob violence is not stamped out of existence.”
He made his arguments as the nation’s sole Black Congressional lawmaker, following the purge of Black officials elected during the Reconstruction era. Despite his efforts, the bill died before ever reaching a vote.
Crimes Without Punishment
Over the next century, 200 attempts were made to get an antilynching law passed. Each time, the efforts were defeated. In the meantime, between 1882 and 1968, Tuskegee University counted 101 reported lynchings in North Carolina alone. The number is vastly undercounted, as many more incidents went unrecorded. The Equal Justice Initiative estimates the national count at 6,500 victims between 1865 and 1950. The overwhelming majority of offenders – 99%, according to the Till Act – were never charged.
Then in 1955, a 14-year-old Chicago boy visiting relatives in Mississippi was found in the Tallahatchie River. Emmett Till had been beaten, shot in the head and chained by the neck to a piece of machinery and drowned. It was rumored he had whistled at a white woman.
Mamie Till, his mother, insisted on an open-casket funeral, making global headlines. The image of Till’s mutilated body sparked a national outcry and fueled the Civil Rights movement.
“I wanted the world to see what they did to my boy,” she said.
Decades later, his accuser told a reporter she’d lied.
Not a Relic of the Past
Crimes motivated by racial hatred are not relegated to the past. In 2018, an FBI report found that attacks motivated by prejudice in the U.S. were at a 16-year high. Anti-Muslim violence has persisted from 9-11 to former President Donald Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban.”
Racist rhetoric surrounding the coronavirus pandemic brought a surge of attacks on Asian Americans, most infamously the slayings of eight Atlanta-area women in 2021. And the extra-judicial killings of Black Americans by police has prompted calls for increased protections.
Rep. Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat, pushed for years to bring the Emmett Till Antilynching Act before Congress. In 2020, it passed the House of Representatives for the first time, but Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul blocked it from reaching the Senate floor on the day of George Floyd’s memorial service in Minneapolis. Floyd, a Black man, died when a white police officer pinned him by the neck with his knee for nearly 10 minutes.
Undeterred, Rush reintroduced the Till Act in 2021. It passed the House on Feb. 28, and the Senate unanimously March 7.
“Lynching is a longstanding and uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy,” Rush wrote this week. “Today, we correct this historic and abhorrent injustice. Unanimous Senate passage of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act sends a clear and emphatic message that our nation will no longer ignore this shameful chapter of our history.”
The new legislation will make lynching a hate crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
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