Congress Outlaws Lynching, No, Really, Lynching.

Congress Outlaws Lynching, No, Really, Lynching.

Congress finally and perhaps miraculously approved legislation Monday that makes lynching a federal hate crime in the US. The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act is one of 200 anti-lynching bills that were introduced in Congress but failed to pass the Senate, thanks to that noble “bipartisan” tool, the filibuster.

According to Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush from Illinois, who has championed this legislation, the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act would make it possible to prosecute a crime as a lynching "when a conspiracy to commit a hate crime results in death or serious bodily injury." The maximum sentence under the Anti-Lynching Act is 30 years.

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Rush said in a statement yesterday: “Lynching is a long-standing and uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy. Perpetrators of lynching got away with murder time and time again — in most cases, they were never even brought to trial. ... Today, we correct this historic and abhorrent injustice.”

According to the NAACP, at least 4,743 people, most of them black, were lynched in the US between 1882 and 1968, and 99 percent of all perpetrators escaped punishment.

The House had overwhelmingly passed a similar anti-lynching measure in 2020, after Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, but Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky, where 205 people were lynched, singlehandedly blocked the bill. He worried it would elevate lesser crimes to lynching. Maybe he thought that was unfair to all the other lynchings.

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Emmett Till was born 23 years after Republican Rep. Leonidas Dyer from Missouri introduced the first anti-lynching bill in 1918. (Republicans were different back then.) This was in response to the 1917 St. Louis race riots, when white Americans murdered between 39 and 150 Black Americans in late May and early July. Another 6,000 Black people were left homeless, and the property damage was estimated at $400,000 (or $8 million in today’s money). Cops were told not to shoot white rioters and did very little to contain the burning, vandalism, and outright murder.

This was all over a labor dispute. Black people who’d fled the Jim Crow South were competing with white people for jobs. Unfortunately, racism runs faster than any Black person. There's never any respite.

Appalled by this racial terrorism, Dyer proposed legislation that would make lynching a federal felony and give the US government the power to prosecute those accused of lynching. Yes, it was an attempted "federal takeover” of the criminal justice system!

From We’re History:

[The legislation] called for a maximum of five years in prison, a $5,000 fine, or both for any state or city official who had the power to protect someone from lynching but failed to do so or who had the power to prosecute accused lynchers but did not; a minimum of five years in prison for anyone who participated in a lynching; and a $10,000 fine on the county in which a lynching took place. Those funds would be turned over to the victim’s family. The Dyer bill also permitted the prosecution of law enforcement officials who failed to equally protect all citizens.

White Southern conservatives in the Senate blocked the bill through filibuster three times. Senator Lee S. Overman of North Carolina told the New York Times that the "good negroes of the South did not want the legislation for 'they do not need it'." He was probably not the best spokesperson for what "negroes" good or bad wanted. You rather wonder how many lynchings he attended.

Some white Southerners openly suggested lynching was an effective social control for Black people, who they claimed were "disproportionately responsible for crime and out-of-wedlock births and required more welfare and social assistance than other minority groups.”

Emmett Till was brutally lynched in 1955, and had this legislation passed, his killers might not have so easily escaped justice. Seven US presidents between 1890 and 1952 had asked Congress to pass a federal anti-lynching bill, with no results. Now, President Joe Biden will finally break the streak and sign this long overdue legislation into law.

[NPR / The Week]

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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