President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed into law legislation that makes lynching a federal hate crime, a landmark move after more than a century of attempts to acknowledge lynching as a “uniquely American weapon of racial terror.”
The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act is named for the Black teenager who was brutally killed when visiting family in Mississippi in 1955. His death became a flashpoint of the civil rights era after his mother demanded an open-casket funeral and allowed photos of his body to be published. The shocking images demonstrated the horror and the prevalence of racist crimes in America.
The new law makes it possible to prosecute a crime as a lynching when death or serious bodily injury results from a conspiracy to commit a hate crime. Those convicted under the law can face up to 30 years in prison.
“The law is not just about the past. It’s about the present and our future as well,” Biden said. “From the bullets in the back of Ahmaud Arbery to countless other acts of violence, countless victims known and unknown. The same racial hatred that drove the mob to hang a noose brought that mob carrying torches out of the fields of Charlottesville just a few years ago.”
“Racial hate isn’t an old problem. It’s a persistent problem,” he added. “Hate never goes away, it only hides under the rocks. If it gets a little bit of oxygen, it comes roaring back out, screaming. What stops it? All of us.”
Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Till’s cousin and best friend, attended the signing at the White House. Parker was with Till in Mississippi when the white men murdered the teenager.
In addition to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, attendees also heard from Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Black investigative journalist Ida B. Wells. Duster talked about how Wells documented and exposed the truth — that lynching was being used as an excuse to intimidate Black communities in order to maintain a social hierarchy based on race. The journalist presented the idea of an anti-lynching bill to the White House in 1898.
Lawmakers have tried to pass nearly 200 anti-lynching bills since 1918, most recently in 2020. That measure was overwhelmingly supported by the House, but was blocked in the Senate following objections from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
This time, however, Paul joined Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to co-sponsor the Emmett Till act, which passed by unanimous consent.
“I feel a sense of relief. I feel our ancestors exhaling,” Booker told ABC’s “The View.” He said many Americans don’t realize that neither local nor state police held most perpetrators accountable.
“And so you had these acts of vicious murder, but it was more than that. These were acts of terrorism meant to intimidate entire communities,” the senator said. “So this is a day to rejoice that indeed the arc of the moral universe is very, very long, but it does ultimately bend toward justice. And this is a day where justice finally prevails.”
Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), a longtime champion of the bill, said after the Senate vote on March 7 that the legislation sent a “clear and emphatic message that our nation will no longer ignore this shameful chapter of our history.”
“Lynching is a longstanding and uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy,” said Rush, who plans to retire from Congress after three decades. “Perpetrators of lynching got away with murder time and time again — in most cases, they were never even brought to trial.”
“Legislation to make lynching a federal crime and prevent racist killers from evading justice was introduced more than 200 times, but never once passed into law,” he added. “Today, we correct this historic and aberrant injustice.”