By Matthew Kaufman
Congress has approved a bill making lynching a federal hate crime, following more than 200 previous attempts over more than 100 years, sending the legislation to be signed into law by President Biden.
The bill passed the senate on March 7 with unanimous consent, meaning there was no formal vote on the legislation but no senators objected to its passage, according to the Wall Street Journal. It had previously passed the House with a vote of 422-3, with Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) opposing the measure.
The bill is named after Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black teenager from Mississippi who was murdered in 1955. According to the New York Times, it makes lynching, defined as the harming or killing of an individual by a group for intimidation purposes, punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
The topic of lynching was thrust into public discussion after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Feb. 2020 and subsequent release of video footage of the incident in May 2020.
“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,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who was a cosponsor of the bill, in a statement.
As reported by the Washington Post, the first attempt at passing anti-lynching legislation was introduced in 1900 by Rep. George Henry White (R-N.C.), who was then the only Black member of congress.
With a renewed push that began in 2018, senators began trying again to bring forth legislation on lynching, including Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
“After working on this issue for years, I am glad to have partnered with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to finally get this done,” Scott tweeted.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised the bill’s passage but lamented the amount of time it took.
“While this will not erase the horrific injustices to which tens of thousands of African Americans have been subjected over the generations — nor fully heal the terror inflicted on countless others — it is an important step forward as we continue the work of confronting our nation’s past in pursuit of a brighter and more just future,” Schumer said.
Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), another cosponsor of the legislation said in a statement that the unanimous passage of the hill “sends a clear and emphatic message that our nation will no longer ignore this shameful chapter of our history and that the full force of the U.S. federal government will always be brought to bear against those who commit this heinous act.”
According to AP, President Biden signed the bill into law on March 29, a major milestone for civil rights activists. At the signing Biden reportedly said, “Thank you for never giving up, never ever giving up. Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone, not everyone, belongs in America, not everyone is created equal.”
Although what the impact the law has on federal court cases is unknown, it is important to note that the enacting of this bill comes at a time when numerous state governments are enacting voting restricting and anti-LGBTQ laws which impact minority groups across the country. While this bill does not address these issues it does reopen the question of the role of the federal government in anti-discrimination policy.