Finally, Congress appears poised to designate lynching a federal hate crime with enhanced penalties. Last month, the House passed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act with just three “no” votes. That’s three too many, but the possibility of a unanimous vote in the Senate could still send a strong message of zero tolerance for this form of domestic terrorism.
In the hundred years between the end of the Civil War and the height of the civil rights movement, thousands of mostly black Americans were lynched by groups or mobs of motivated fellow Americans. mainly by racial hatred. Among the victims was Till, 14, from Chicago, who was abducted, beaten and shot while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 after false allegations that he accosted a white woman. Till’s mother insisted that his mutilated body be displayed in an open coffin to show the world the brutality he had suffered, which helped spur the civil rights movement.
Legislation in Till’s name, now about to pass, 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”. He would face up to 30 years in prison, in addition to any penalties for other federal crimes.
To say it took too long to come doesn’t begin to describe the distressing reality of this one. Nearly a century ago, the Post-Dispatch editorial board decried what it called “our annual bee lyncher”; in the early 1940s, the paper called for confronting it with federal intervention in Southern state legal systems (not exactly a popular idea at the time). Since 1900, there have been approximately 200 attempts in Congress to pass a comprehensive federal law against lynching. Yet all so far have failed.
The most recent attempt, an earlier version of the current bill, failed in 2020 after Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., withheld it, saying he wanted more specific language. Paul signed on as a co-sponsor of the current measure, making it likely the Senate could 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 while jogging in Georgia might well have fit the legal definition if that law had already been in effect. In addition to providing a powerful new tool for prosecutors in such cases, passage of this bill (especially if passed unanimously in a deeply divided Senate) could bring some degree of healing to a nation. who still hasn’t fully come to terms with the violent racism of his past — and his present.
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