House paves the way for historic anti-lynching bill to head to president’s desk

This is part of an occasional series of Yahoo News articles and accompanying videos on how the issues America faced in the 1920s — aka “the Roaring Twenties” — have echoes in our own decade, a century later.

The House of Representatives passed a bill with broad bipartisan support on Wednesday designating lynching as a federal crime — a historic move that paves the way for antilynching legislation to be sent to the president’s desk after hundreds of unsuccessful attempts over the past century.

The bill passed 410–4, with Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tex., Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. and Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., voting against the bill.   

During a press conference on Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said they are expecting the bill will pass the Senate by the end of the week, and Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., said they expect President Trump will sign the bill into law shortly thereafter.     

Sponsored by Rush, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act (H.R. 35) — named after 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 — has been amended to use the same language as the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act (S. 488), which was introduced in the Senate over a year ago by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. The Senate bill passed by unanimous consent in December 2018 and again in February 2019, but because the House and Senate bills still have different titles and numbers, additional action is needed in the Senate before the legislation can go to the President's desk. 

“I am so very grateful to see this historic bill finally get the vote it deserves on the House floor,” Rush said in a statement to Yahoo News ahead of Wednesday’s House vote. “I am also immensely grateful to my friends and colleagues Senator Kamala Harris and Senator Cory Booker for closely working with my office to craft a piece of legislation that will achieve broad bipartisan support.”    

The bill makes lynching a federal crime by establishing it as a new criminal civil rights violation, and would amend federal civil rights law to include provisions on lynching.

“Today brings us one step closer to finally reconciling a dark chapter in our nation’s history,” Booker said on Wednesday. “Lynchings were used to terrorize, marginalize, and oppress black communities – to kill human beings in order to sow fear and keep black communities in a perpetual state of racial subjugation. If we do not reckon with this dark past, we cannot move forward. But today we are moving forward. Thanks to the leadership of Rep. Rush, the House has sent a clear, indisputable message that lynching will not be tolerated. It has brought us closer to reckoning with our nation’s history of racialized violence. Now the Senate must again pass this bill to ensure that it finally becomes law.”

Lynching refers to a form of vigilante justice in which victims are kidnapped and executed in public, often by hanging, as punishment for suspected crimes or as a warning to others. In the post-Reconstruction South it was commonly used to enforce white supremacy over African-Americans. According to the NAACP, there were 4,472 lynchings between 1882 and 1968, most of them involving blacks killed at the hands of white mobs. The bill describes lynching as “a pernicious and pervasive tool that was used to interfere with multiple aspects of life — including the exercise of Federally protected rights,” and prohibits “conspiracies to violate each of these rights.” 

Lynching is by most definitions a form of murder, but as the bill notes, “ninety-nine percent of all perpetrators of lynching escaped from punishment by State or local officials.” 

Though the House bill has now been amended to correspond to the language used in the Senate bill, there were initially discrepancies in the language of the two bills that could have caused delays in getting a final bill to the president’s desk. 

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who had proposed his own antilynching legislation in the House, commended the passage the Emmett Till Antilynching Act.   

“Last year, I was approached by local African-American community leaders to look into antilynching legislation and felt that the language from Sen. Harris’s bill that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate was the right one to support,” Bacon told Yahoo News. “That June I introduced a bill, H.R. 3536 Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, that mirrored the Senate-passed version. I am thrilled that the Judiciary Committee has decided to amend that language into H.R. 35 the Emmett Till Antilynching Act and that the House passed it this week. This action is long overdue, going back 200 attempts since 1918.”   

The origins of the fight for federal antilynching legislation go back decades. In the early 20th century, it was pushed vigorously by the NAACP and civil rights activists, but they needed an ally in Congress. After an antilynching bill proposed by Rep. George Henry White, R-N.C., failed to make it to the House floor, Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer, R-Mo., introduced the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill 18 years later, on April 18, 1918. If passed into law, it would have charged lynch mobs with capital murder, tried lynching cases in federal court and imposed jail time and fines on state and local law enforcement officials who failed to make reasonable efforts to prevent lynchings.   

After stalling in the House Judiciary Committee for several years, the bill finally passed the House of Representatives on Jan. 26, 1922. From there, it needed passage in the Senate before the president could sign it into law.  

But, in the words of historian Robert Zangrando, the antilynching bill was ultimately “displaced by the indifference of its friends and the strategy of its enemies.” With ambivalent support from Senate Republicans and adamant opposition from Southern Democrats, the bill sat in legislative limbo before eventually dying in the Senate. Though Dyer reintroduced the measure in each new Congress in the 1920s, it failed to gain any real traction. In total, 200 antilynching bills were introduced in the Senate over the years, but all were unsuccessful.   

Years later, Congress acknowledged this failure with a Senate resolution on June 13, 2005, apologizing to the victims of lynching and their descendants. But it would be nearly 14 years after this apology before the Senate passed legislation criminalizing lynching in December 2018.   

“The importance of this bill cannot be overstated,” Rush said ahead of the House vote. “From Charlottesville to El Paso, we are still being confronted with the same violent racism and hatred that took the life of Emmett and so many others. The passage of this bill will send a strong and clear message to the nation that we will not tolerate this bigotry.”

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