President Biden on Tuesday signed into law legislation that makes lynching a federal hate crime — a historic bill that took more than 100 years to arrive on the desk of the U.S. president. He wasted no time signing off on it, putting pen to paper before giving remarks.
“I just signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime for the first time in American history,” Biden said at the White House.
“Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone belongs in America, not everyone is created equal. Terror to systemically undermine hard-fought civil rights.”
The Emmett Till Antilynching Act, named for the 14-year-old who was brutally killed in 1955 after a white woman accused him of whistling at her, will make it possible to prosecute a person for lynching when that person conspires to commit a hate crime that results in death or serious bodily injury.
The legislation, one of roughly 200 bills that had attempted to outlaw lynching, makes the crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
“Lynching, we know it’s a stain on the history of our nation. Since our founding, and in particular the century following the Civil War, thousands of people in states across our nation were tortured and murdered by vigilantes,” said Vice President Kamala Harris, who had co-sponsored anti-lynching legislation when she was a U.S. senator.
Lawmakers, including Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who have advocated for this measure for years, are rejoicing. The bill was unanimously passed in the Senate on March 7, after being blocked there in 2020. Rush was one of the advocates who stood behind Biden as he signed the bill.
In the House of Representatives, Rush carried the torch for this legislation, reintroducing it in February, and he succeeded in pushing it through just before the end of his term, when he is due to retire.
“I was 8 years old when my mother put the photograph of Emmett Till’s brutalized body that ran in Jet magazine on our living room coffee table,” Rush explained in a statement issued on Feb. 25. “She pointed to it, and said, ‘This is why I brought my boys out of Albany, Ga.’”
The picture “shaped my consciousness as a Black man in America, changed the course of my life and changed our very nation,” the lawmaker said.
“The failure of Congress to codify federal anti-lynching legislation — despite more than 200 attempts since 1900 — meant that 99% of lynching perpetrators walked free,” Rush said after the House passed the bill on Feb. 28. “Today, we take a meaningful step toward correcting this historical injustice. I am immensely proud of this legislation, which will ensure that the full force of the U.S. federal government will always be brought to bear against those who commit monstrous acts of hatred.”
According to documentation from the Equal Justice Initiative, nearly 6,500 Black people were lynched between 1865 and 1950. NAACP research, however, found that of 4,743 lynchings that occurred between 1882 and 1968, 72% of the victims were Black.
The death of Emmett Till was a sobering moment that revealed how Black people were treated in the United States, and it helped to spark the civil rights movement. Till, a Black teenager from Chicago, was visiting his family in Money, Miss., and was not accustomed to the segregation and racism in the South, according to History.com. He went into a store to buy candy, and on his way out he allegedly flirted with 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant. She later claimed that more than that had happened between them.
Days after that interaction, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother kidnapped, tortured and beat Till, leaving his body in the Tallahatchie River. His mother famously insisted on having an open casket at the funeral to show the world the brutal beating of her only son.
In the Senate, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., helped to carry the bill through the chamber and exulted at its passage.
He tweeted: “Tonight the Senate passed my anti-lynching legislation, taking a necessary and long-overdue step toward a more unified and just America. 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.”
Opposition to the law in the past included criticism that the bill was too broad and fell under the jurisdiction of “states’ rights.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., one of the co-sponsors, who had filed his own anti-lynching bill in the past, said: “I’m pleased to have worked with Senators Cory Booker [D-N.J.] and Tim Scott to strengthen the language of this bill, which will ensure that federal law will define lynching as the absolutely heinous crime that it is. … I’m glad to co-sponsor this bipartisan effort, and I applaud the Senate for quickly passing this important legislation.”
In 2020, Paul said of earlier anti-lynching legislation: “This bill would cheapen the meaning of lynching by defining it so broadly as to include a minor bruise or abrasion. Our national history of racial terrorism demands more seriousness of us than that.”
Many liken the death of Ahmaud Arbery to a modern-day lynching. The 25-year-old Black man was chased and gunned down in a neighborhood in southern Georgia in February 2020 by three white men who said they believed he was a burglar.
The men, William “Roddie” Bryan, Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, were convicted of Arbery’s murder and were found guilty of federal hate crimes in February for violating Arbery’s civil rights and targeting him for being Black.
“Modern-day lynchings like the murder of Ahmaud Arbery make abundantly clear that the racist hatred and terror that fueled the lynching of Emmett Till are far too prevalent in America to this day,” Rush said after the House passed the bill.
A few months after Arbery’s slaying in 2020, the death of George Floyd sparked a global racial reckoning, throwing a spotlight on the treatment of Black Americans.