At last, Congress appears poised to designate lynching as a federal hate crime punishable with enhanced penalties. The House last month passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act with just three “no” votes. That’s three too many, but the potential for unanimous passage in the Senate could still send a strong message of zero tolerance for this form of domestic terrorism.
During the hundred years from the end of the Civil War to the peak of the civil rights movement, thousands of Americans, most of them Black, were lynched by groups or mobs of fellow Americans driven primarily by racial hatred. Among the victims was Till, 14, of Chicago, who was abducted, beaten and shot to death while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 after false allegations he had accosted a white woman. Till’s mother insisted that his mutilated body be displayed in an open casket to show the world the brutality he’d suffered, which helped spur the civil rights movement.
The legislation in Till’s name, now on the cusp of passage, would define lynching, in the words of lead sponsor Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., as “a conspiracy to commit a hate crime (that) results in death or serious bodily injury.” It would be punishable by up to 30 years in prison, in addition to any sentencing for other federal crimes.
To say this has been too long in coming doesn’t begin to describe the distressing reality of it. The Post-Dispatch Editorial Board almost a century ago decried what it called “our annual lynching bee”; by the early 1940s, the newspaper was calling for confronting it with federal intervention in the state legal systems of the South (not exactly a popular idea at the time). Since 1900, there have been roughly 200 attempts in Congress to pass a comprehensive federal anti-lynching law. Yet all until now have failed.
The most recent attempt, an earlier version of the current bill, failed in 2020 after Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., held it up, saying he wanted more specific language. Paul has signed on as a cosponsor of the current measure, making it likely the Senate will be able to pass it by unanimous consent.
While it’s true that lynching is far less common today than it was in the past, it still happens. The 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery by three men as he jogged in Georgia might well have fit the legal definition had this law been on the books already. In addition to providing a powerful new tool for prosecutors in such cases, passage of this bill (especially if it’s passed unanimously in a deeply divided Senate) could provide some degree of healing for a nation that still hasn’t fully come to terms with the violent racism of its past — and its present.