Congress Is Expected to Pass Anti-Lynching Bill After 120 Years of Failure
Since at least 1900, members of the House and Senate have tried to pass a law making lynching a federal crime.
To date, they have not succeeded. The bills were consistently blocked, shelved or ignored, and the passage of time has rendered anti-lynching legislation increasingly symbolic.
Now, a measure to add lynching to the United States Criminal Code appears to have bipartisan support in both chambers. The Senate has passed a version of the bill, and the House is voting on its own version on Wednesday afternoon.
This time, it might go all the way to the Oval Office, where President Trump is expected to sign it into law.
The House bill, called the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, was introduced by Representative Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois. The Senate bill, which passed unanimously last year, was introduced by Kamala Harris, Democrat of California; Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey; and Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina.
The House bill makes lynching a hate crime and describes it as “a pernicious and pervasive tool” that was often carried out “by multiple offenders and groups rather than isolated individuals.”
“We are one step closer to finally outlawing this heinous practice and achieving justice for over 4,000 victims of lynching,” Mr. Rush said in a statement when the House vote was announced last week.
He cited Emmett Till, one of thousands of lynching victims during the Jim Crow era. Emmett was brutally tortured and killed in 1955, when he was 14, after a white woman accused him of grabbing her and whistling at her in a grocery store in Mississippi. Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, fought against a quick burial so her son’s mutilated body could be viewed and photographed, to “let the world see what I have seen.”
The two white men who were charged with killing Emmett were acquitted by an all-white jury. At the time, it was often the case that perpetrators of racist violence were either acquitted or not prosecuted at all.
“The importance of this bill cannot be overstated,” Mr. Rush said in his statement.
“From Charlottesville to El Paso, we are still being confronted with the same violent racism and hatred that took the life of Emmett and so many others,” he said, referring to white supremacist rallies in Virginia in 2017 and a mass shooting in Texas last year in which the authorities said Latinos were targeted. “The passage of this bill will send a strong and clear message to the nation that we will not tolerate this bigotry.”
Murder is typically prosecuted at the state or local level, but the House and Senate bills would make lynching a federal crime. It fits a longstanding pattern: Civil rights legislation has often been passed at the federal level after individual states did not act.
Racially motivated killings have continued to occur in the United States since the end of the Jim Crow era. High-profile cases include those of James Byrd Jr., a black man who was brutally murdered by three white men in Texas in 1998, and the nine black parishioners who were killed in a church massacre in South Carolina in 2015.
But a bill in 2020 cannot protect the thousands of people who were victims of racist violence decades ago.
“When it really mattered, and when it really would have had the impact of protecting the lives of black people in this country, there was widespread unwillingness” to pass a bill like this, said Tameka Bradley Hobbs, an associate professor of history at Florida Memorial University and the author of “Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home: Racial Violence in Florida.”
She added that when she spoke to people about her research, many said that they were not aware of the devastating scale and continuing impact of racist violence in the United States.
“There’s much more that could be done in terms of our curriculum to make sure that folks understood the full scope of anti-black violence in American history,” Dr. Hobbs said. “I think if they understood that, perhaps they would understand the Black Lives Matter movement as an extension of centuries, really, of advocacy on the part of African-Americans.”
Researchers with the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal advocacy group, have documented more than 4,000 lynchings in the United States between 1877 and 1950, mostly — though not exclusively — in the South. The extrajudicial killings were instruments of terror, often conducted as public spectacles in full view of, or with cooperation from, law enforcement.
Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said that the terror drove millions of black people to flee the South, drastically altering the demographic geography of the United States.
“I think it’s important that there is an effort now to acknowledge this history and to do what we should have done a century ago,” he said. “A lot of folks will say, ‘Well, it’s not relevant today; it’s not necessary today.’ But lynching violence was created by politics of fear and anger, and we should never assume that an era of fear and anger will never occur again.”
The bill that the Senate approved last year noted that 99 percent of lynching perpetrators escaped punishment.
Black activists, writers and speakers risked their lives by calling attention to the violence. In 1892, the journalist Ida B. Wells, who fought fiercely to end lynching, wrote that “the strong arm of the law must be brought to bear upon lynchers in severe punishment, but this cannot and will not be done unless a healthy public sentiment demands and sustains such action.”
The omission of Wells’s name from the House and Senate bills was a major oversight, Dr. Hobbs said. “I can’t think of one American who did more to bring the cause of anti-lynching to national and international attention,” she said.
“I tremble with horror for the future of our nation when I think what must be the inevitable result if mob violence is not stamped out of existence and law once permitted to reign supreme,” he said in a speech on the House floor. His words were applauded, but his bill did not pass.
The cause was later taken up by the N.A.A.C.P., which produced a report on lynching in 1919, and by members of Congress, including Representative Leonidas C. Dyer, who sponsored an anti-lynching bill that passed the House in 1922; and Robert F. Wagner and Edward P. Costigan, who introduced another version in the Senate in 1934.
Those efforts were thwarted by opponents who argued for states’ rights or used procedural tactics like the Senate filibuster to shelve anti-lynching legislation. (In 2005, the Senate issued a formal apology for its repeated failures.)
Ms. Harris, Mr. Booker and Mr. Scott introduced a version that the Senate approved in 2018, but it was never taken up by the House.
If it passes as expected, the House legislation would still need to be reconciled with the 2019 Senate bill. Once that happens, a final version will be sent to the Oval Office. A White House spokesman said Mr. Trump was expected to sign it.
“I think it is a tragic irony that this is coming way too late for the people who were involved,” Dr. Hobbs said. “I also think it is equally tragic and ironic that it took African-American legislators to bring this forward. I do, however, see the symbolic value of such legislation in, at least in some small way, trying to acknowledge tragedies of the past.”