WASHINGTON (CN) – It took more than 100 years but the House of Representatives voted Wednesday to finally make lynching, a barbaric tool of social and racial control, a federal hate crime.
Named in honor of the 14-year-old boy whose brutal 1955 murder sparked the Civil Rights Movement in America, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, or H.R. 35, is the first legislation of its kind to vault through the House.
“Lynching, plain and simple, is an American evil, and this atrocity is comparable to France’s use of the guillotine, the Roman Empire’s use of crucifixion, and the British use of drawing and quartering as a tool of terrorism,” Representative Bobby Rush, the bill’s lead sponsor, said from the floor of the House this afternoon. “For too long federal law has remained conspicuously silent.”
With 410 votes in favor, only four lawmakers voted against the measure: Representatives Louie Gohmert of Texas, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Ted Yoho of Florida, all Republicans, and Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, who is Independent.
“I voted against H.R. 35 because the Constitution specifies only a handful of federal crimes and leaves the rest to individual states to prosecute,” Massie said. “In addition, this bill expands current federal ‘hate crime’ laws. A crime is a crime, and all victims deserve equal justice. Adding enhanced penalties for ‘hate’ tends to endanger other liberties such as freedom of speech.”
Yoho similarly told reporters following the vote that he voted against the measure because it was an overreach by the federal government.
Gohmert and Amash did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Congress has seen antilynching bills come up for consideration roughly 200 times since 1900 when the only black member of Congress serving, Representative George Henry White of North Carolina, put forward a petition that would outlaw lynching “by gangs of irresponsible and wickedly disposed persons.”
The petition never got out of committee, and it would be 22 more years — with lynching occurring all the while — before then Missouri Representative Leonidas Dyer leveraged a similar bill to the House floor for a vote. It failed after a fierce bit of filibustering by opponents who argued that the bill would infringe states’ rights.
New life was breathed into antilynching measures just two years ago when the Senate passed the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act. Lacking the teeth of Rush’s resolution, however, that bill did not explicitly codify lynching as a hate crime, asserting only that lynching is a deprivation of one’s civil rights.
With the 2018 language incorporated into the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is fully expected to pass the measure before the end of the week, Rush said Wednesday. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill into law by Saturday.
When asked at a press conference Wednesday whether she believed Trump would follow through, California Representative Karen Bass remarked: “How could he not?”
Lynching has brutally cut short the lives of thousands of people over the last 120 years. The recorded total of those lynched between 1882 and 1968, according to the Tuskegee Institute, is 4,743 people.
Of that total, 72% of the victims were black. Whites who died by lynching tended to be those who had come to the defense of those targeted by the racist mob.
Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, emphasized Wednesday that these recorded numbers do not tell the entire story.
“Make no mistake lynching is terrorism, terrorism directed at African Americans,” Bass said. “It was commonly used for 250 years during enslavement and 100 years after slavery.”
The congresswoman went on to note how the echoes of America’s ugly affair with lynching reverberate today each time a noose appears on a college campuses, in a locker room or at an office building.
The last known lynching in America occurred in 1981 — hours after a mistrial had been called in the case of a black man, Josephus Anderson, who was accused of killing a white police officer.
Out for retribution, James Llewellyn Knowles and Henry Hays lured 19-year-old Michael Donald to their car in Mobile, Alabama, while Donald had been walking home one night after buying cigarettes for his sister.
According to a 2015 report in The New York Times, one of the men was the son of Bennie Jack Hays, the second-highest ranking member of Alabama’s chapter of United Klans of America.
The elder Hays had reportedly remarked after Anderson’s mistrial that, if a black man could get away with murdering a white man, then a white man ought to be able to do the same.
Knowles and the younger Hays forced Donald into their car at gunpoint, took him to the woods, beat him with tree limbs and strangled him with rope. When no signs of life seemed present, Hays slit Donald’s throat three times. The men then hanged Donald from a tree just across from a house owned by Hays’ father.
“It is difficult to hear some of the ugly parts of our history,” Bass said before lawmakers cast their votes. “But it’s important that we do.”
In “Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” a report issued by the Equal Justice Initiative, lynching is described as a tool of oppression used not just to induce fear but to directly and forcefully divorce black men, women and children from their own humanity.
Bass reflected on this Wednesday as she recalled how lynchings historically were treated as a breezy public spectacle.
“They had picnics as they watched brutal murders take place,” she said as she read from a historic account of a lynching where the audience members’ elation was described. “Men joked loudly at the sight of the bleeding body. Girls giggled as flies fed on the blood that dropped from the victim’s nose. … Postcards were sold. Souvenirs were made from victims’ remains.”
Bass stood with Rush, Representative Jerry Nadler and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer beside a large photo of the young Emmett Till during a press conference before the vote.
Rush commended Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, on Wednesday for her decision to keep her son’s casket open at his funeral.
She allowed the world to see her child — swollen, mutilated and unrecognizable — and it was one of the most heroic decisions ever made in American history, Rush said.
“Most of us would have seen Emmett’s body and said we wanted to close the casket,” the Illinois Democrat said. “The courage of Mamie Till-Mobley was so extraordinary that she would not allow the casket to be closed. As a result, America and the world saw the results of the hatred and evil in our nation. That picture of Emmett catalyzed an entire nation, an entire world. The world has changed because of the decision of Mamie Till-Mobley.”
H.R. 35 is not just about symbolic recognition, it is also meant to serve as a firm warning to those who would dare employ racially motivated violence today.
“Many think lynching is a relic of the past but recent events have shown us this is not the case,” Rush said. “Instead we have seen a rise in racist violence that has culminated in events like the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia or the racially motivated shooting in El Paso, Texas.”
In 2018, an FBI report found that personal attacks motivated by prejudice in the U.S. hit a 16-year high with a particular spike in violence toward Latinos.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday there is no expectation that the distinguishing of lynching as a hate crime will erase the violence of the past.
“But it will shine the light of truth on the racist injustices of the past,” she said.
Representative Al Green commended the bill’s sponsors at length and considered the life and death of Emmett Till.
“This legislation is more than 100 years in the making,” the Texas Democrat said. “And while it does deal with lynching, truth be told, more than a lynching took place.
“This was the thing that sent shock waves across this country,” Green said of Till’s death, “causing people to think about what was happening in the South. Yes, he was lynched, and yes, this was the unfinished business of this house. We have much more unfinished business.”