U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed a bill to make lynching a federal hate crime – more than 100 years after such legislation was first proposed.
The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act is named after the Black teenager whose murder in Mississippi in the summer of 1955 became an exciting moment in the civil rights era.
Till, 14, was traveling from his home in Chicago to visit family members in Mississippi when it was alleged that he whistled at a white woman. Till was abducted, beaten and shot in the head. A large metal fan was tied to his neck with barbed wire before his body was thrown into a river. His grieving mother insisted on an open coffin to show everyone how her son had been brutalized.
Two white men, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, JW Milam, were charged but acquitted by an all-white male jury. Bryant and Milam later told a reporter that they kidnapped and killed Till.
Biden acknowledged the long delay in the legislation during remarks in the Rose Garden to lawmakers, administration officials and civil rights advocates, emphasizing how the violent deaths of Black Americans were used to intimidate them and prevent them from voting simply because of their skin color.
“Thank you for never giving up, never giving up,” the president said. “Lynching was pure terror to force the lie that not everyone, not everyone, belongs in America, not everyone is created equal.”
But the president stressed that forms of racial terror still exist in the US – which creates the need for the law.
“Racial hatred is not an old problem – it’s a persistent problem,” Biden said. “Hate never goes away. It just hides.”
The new law makes it possible to prosecute a crime as a lynching when a conspiracy to commit a hate crime leads to death or serious bodily injury, according to the bill’s champion, Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush. The law provides for a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and fines.
Lynching Bill Failed Nearly 200 Times
The House passed Bill 422-3 on March 7, with eight members abstaining, after unanimously clearing the Senate. Rush also filed a bill in January 2019 that approved the House 410-4 before that measure came to a standstill in the Senate.
Congress first considered anti-lynching legislation more than 120 years ago. It has failed nearly 200 times to pass such legislation, beginning with a bill passed in 1900 by North Carolina Rep. George Henry White, the only Black member of Congress at that time, was introduced.
The NAACP started lobbying for anti-lynching legislation in the 1920s. A federal hate crime statute was finally adopted and signed in the 1990s, decades after the civil rights movement.