- The Emmett Till Antilynching Act makes lynching a federal hate crime
- More than 4,700 lynchings have been documented dating back to 1881
- “It’s one step closer to healing,” one Alabama professor said.
Black leaders, social justice advocates and others lauded this week’s passage of long-awaited federal legislation making lynching a federal hate crime. But some said more needs to be done, calling the law one step toward addressing issues that continue to plague communities of color, from police brutality to erosion of voting rights.
“I think it’s important to ensure that we put this legislation in place and that it’s enforced,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, an online-focused civil rights group. “At the same time, it’s important that we continue to work to deal with all the ways that anti-Black racism shows up, from police violence to the ways in which our votes and ability to express ourselves in a democracy are being stolen.”
President Joe Biden signed the landmark Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act into law Tuesday, an effort 122 years in the making. The act, which makes lynching a federal hate crime, is named for the Black teen whose 1955 murder helped inspire the civil rights movement.
On her Twitter feed, former first lady Michelle Obama said her feelings about the law’s long overdue passage were mixed.
“For many Black folks, this historic moment comes with a lot of different emotions — I know it does for me,” she wrote. “Antilynching legislation was first introduced over a century ago—and failed to pass over 200 times. Now, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act is a chance to reckon with our history, and move in a new direction—one that makes this country safer and more just for us all.”
Lecia Brooks, chief of staff and culture at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights legal advocacy organization in Montgomery, Alabama, called the law’s passage “thrilling and tremendously important.”
“It brings attention to racism, made manifest through the lynching of Black people, at a time when people are pushing back on teaching about our full history,” Brooks said. “So it’s important on a number of levels, and it holds us accountable in new and important ways.”
Janai Nelson, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the law’s passage marked the government’s “first real steps” toward acknowledging widespread lynching.
“After decades of thwarted efforts and inaction,” she said in a statement, “the federal government will now recognize lynching for what is it and has always been: a violent form of anti-Black terrorism that the government must combat with all of the power at its disposal.”
In Alabama, the Tuskegee University Archives has documented more than 4,700 lynchings dating back to 1881, a number that archivist Dana Chandlersaid undercounts the actual figure since the fate of many people kidnapped under cover of darkness remains unknown.
Chandler, an associate history professor who oversees the archive of lynchings begun by Black sociologist Monroe Work, said while he was glad the law had finally been passed, he was disappointed it had taken so long.
“This was long overdue and something that should have been settled many years ago,” he said. “The wheels of administration turn slowly.”
And it’s only the beginning, Chandler said, of addressing the social ills that plague all underprivileged communities.
“It’s one step closer to healing,” he said. “But it’s one we need to carry to its conclusion.”
‘These were not secret killings’
In 1900, U.S. Rep. George Henry White, the only Black member of Congress at the time, proposed the nation’s first anti-lynching bill, but the measure died in committee – the first of more 200 times failed attempts to make lynching a federal crime.
While the term “lynching” might prompt images of nighttime kidnappings conducted by people shrouded in white, many took place in broad daylight by people not attempting to hide their identity at all, said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University in Columbus.
In many cases, he said, their actions were aided or unobstructed by law enforcement.
“These were not secret killings,” Jeffries said.
And they weren’t always meant to affect just the person killed, but to terrorize a larger community – a distinction that the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act makes clear.
“Lynching wasn’t just a tool of violence,” said Robinson, of Color of Change. “It was a tool of terror to suppress our will and our ability to engage. Many people who were lynched were people that white supremacists believe were operating outside unwritten and written rules for Black people. It was used to send a message to other Black people to know their place.”
Robinson said Southern Democrats repeatedly used the filibuster to thwart attempts at passing anti-lynching legislation – for instance, in 1922, after the House passed an anti-lynching bill, and then again in 1935, when Georgia Democrat Richard Russell mounted a six-day filibuster and said he would do whatever it took “to preserve and ensure white supremacy in the social, economic and political life of our state.”
“It was used time and time again not just to prevent anti-lynching laws but to prevent so many opportunities for progress in this country,” Robinson said. “The fact that it took over 120 years to make lynching a federal hate crime illustrates how arcane and how destructive the filibuster is to our democracy.”
A necessary step forward
U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush, who sponsored the House version of the bill, called the signing “a day of enormous consequence for our nation.”
“When I think of what this means — that we can finally provide justice for the victims of this heinous act; that we will be able to reckon with our nation’s legacy of lynching; and that we will, once and for all, send a strong message that we will not stand for these abhorrent crimes — I am elated,” Rush said in a statement.
Till, 14, was kidnapped and murdered in 1955 after flirting with a white woman in Mississippi. A photograph of his brutalized body was published in Jet magazine at his mother’s insistence, an image that helped spark the civil rights movement.
Rush said he was 8 years old when his mother set the magazine on the family’s coffee table.
“I am so proud that we have come together — in a bipartisan fashion — to enact a law that will ensure lynchings are always punished as the barbaric crimes they are,” he said.
Robert Luckett, a history professor at Jackson State University in Mississippi, called the passage of the law “a watershed moment.”
For a state like Mississippi, where 654 known lynchings took place between 1877 and 1950, he said, the achievement was not only a tribute to Till’s life and legacy but to all victims of racial violence, as well as the activists who long fought for anti-lynching legislation, such as journalist Ida B. Wells.
“It’s a victory for all the people who died,” Luckett said. “It’s also an opportunity to hold people accountable for the continued racialized violence in our country.”
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who along with U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., sponsored the Senate version of the bill, acknowledged that the legislation would not heal the pain experienced by the thousands of people lynched in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“It will not reverse the fear and suffering that Black communities endured during those years as this shameful instrument of terror was wielded by white supremacists to intimidate and oppress,” Booker said in a statement.
“But signing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law is a necessary step that signals our nation is willing to confront the darkness of its past to move towards a brighter future… With the president’s signature, we are finally able to say that, after a century’s worth of efforts, we have met the moment and done the right thing.”
Jeffries, the history professor, attributed the unrest of 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, with spurring legislators to finally act to get the measure passed. Unfortunately, he said, the move serves as a gesture that allows lawmakers to bask in a symbolic but only partial victory rather than addressing the broader issues that face people of color nationwide – like police brutality.
“What would have been more meaningful is if they had passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” he said. “Racial terrorism still exists. We saw that with Trayvon Martin. Here’s something where they got to say, ‘we did something about justice,’ but they’re leaving more problematic issues on the table.”
Jeffries said that while it’s important to acknowledge the legacy of lynching, it’s also important to remember how often lawmakers stood in the way of passing legislation to fight it.
“I hope it doesn’t take a century for us to get substantial police reform, because we can’t wait that long,” he said. “If we do that, we fail. This isn’t just a policy thing. It’s about protecting people’s lives.”