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After multiple failed attempts over twelve decades, there is now a federal law that designates lynching as a hate crime. In a ceremony Tuesday at the White House, President Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act.
Under the legislation, perpetrators can receive up to 30 years in prison when a conspiracy to commit a hate crime results in death or grievous bodily harm.
The measure is named after Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was abducted, tortured and killed in 1955 after the black teenager was accused of whistling and grabbing Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, while he was visiting relatives in Mississippi. Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant’s husband, and JW Milam, Roy Bryant’s half-brother, stood trial for Till’s murder and were promptly acquitted by an all-white jury.
The men later admitted in a magazine interview to murdering Till. Carolyn Bryant told a historian 50 years after the crime that Emmett never got hold of her.
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The passage of the bill marks a career-defining achievement for Illinois Democratic Representative Bobby Rush, one of the sponsors of the legislation. He announced in January that he would retire at the end of this Congress after three decades in office and a previous career as a civil rights activist.
Rush said he vividly remembers being a young boy in the 1950s and his mother gathering him and his three siblings around the dinner table and showing them the issue of Jet magazine. covering up Emmett’s lynching.
“And she pointed to this grotesque picture of Emmett Till in the coffin and she said, ‘That’s why I got my boys out of Georgia. And I will never forget it,” he said.
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There were more than 4,000 racial terrorist lynchings in the United States between 1877 and 1950, according to a comprehensive report by the Equal Justice Initiative. The attacks were overwhelmingly aimed at blacks.
The first federal legislation to end the attacks was introduced in 1900 by Representative George Henry White of North Carolina – then the only black lawmaker in the body. His bill failed to make it out of committee.
Other failures followed, including in 1922 and 1937. In 2005, the Senate passed a resolution expressing remorse for failing to pass anti-lynching legislation. Efforts stalled again in 2018 and 2020.
Then, on March 8, more than 120 years after similar legislation was introduced, the Senate unanimously passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act.
“After more than 200 failed attempts to ban lynching, Congress is finally taking the long-awaited action by passing the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act. Hallelujah. It’s long overdue,” Majority Leader Chuck said. Schumer.
The bill passed the House of Representatives in February. Republican Representatives Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Chip Roy of Texas were the only members to vote against the legislation.
Racially motivated killings continue to occur in the United States.
In February, three white men were convicted of violating Ahmaud Arbery’s civil rights in 2020 when they chased him with a pickup truck on a residential street outside of Brunswick, Georgia, and the have murdered.
Rush said the Arbery case would have been a textbook lynching under the new law.
“Lynching has terrorized ordinary Americans, especially black Americans, in the past and it is used in a current sense to terrorize.”
NPR’s Adrian Florido and Peter Granitz contributed to this report.