Tragedies Mark Path to Anti-Lynching Bill Up for House Vote

WASHINGTON (CN) — In 1918 when a white mob hanged Mary Turner from a tree, then drenched the pregnant 20-year-old in gasoline and lit a match, federal law did not treat lynching as a hate crime.

Over a century later, it still doesn’t — a gaping wound in American history that the House of Representatives is poised to finally address Wednesday in a legislative effort that has failed roughly 200 times before.

The bludgeoned body of an African-American male, propped in a rocking chair after having been lynched. The shadow of a man using rod to prop up the victim’s head can be seen, while the blood-spattered victim himself has white and dark paint applied to his face, circular disks glued to cheeks, and cotton glued to face and head. Circa 1900, location unknown. (Image via “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.”)

Representative George Henry White began the tradition with H.R. 6963 in 1900, voicing disgust that “human life is frightfully cheap in the South.” The North Carolina banker was the only black member of Congress at the time. His anti-lynching petition never made it out of committee.

In 1922 a similar bill from Missouri Representative Leonidas Dyer was the first of its kind to pass the House. When it died in a Senate filibuster, lawmakers argued that the criminalizing of lynching at the federal level could infringe states’ rights.

Today the next chapter of the movement is being brought to the House floor by Illinois Representative Bobby Rush.

H.R. 35, or the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, is named for a 14-year-old whose death in 1955 was a chief catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement in America.

Emmett Till was shot in the head, his mutilated body in thrown in the Tallahatchie River, after he was accused of offending a married white woman named Carolyn Bryant Donham at the height of the Jim Crow era.

Stories like those of Turner and Till are part of an odious tapestry comprising the history of lynching and mob violence in America.

Some 4,743 recorded lynchings occurred between 1882 and 1968, according to the Tuskegee Institute. Of that total, 3,446 of the victims were black. Whites were also lynched, usually if they had come to the defense of those targeted by the racist mobs.

In this Sept. 23, 1955, photo, J.W. Milam, left, and Roy Bryant, right, sit with their wives in a courtroom in Sumner, Miss. Milam and Bryant were acquitted of murder in the slaying of Emmett Till.  (AP Photo/File)

In 1918 before the mob came for Mary Turner, the murder of Georgia plantation owner Hampton Smith had spurred an indiscriminate manhunt in Brooks-Lowndes County, Georgia.

Mary’s husband, Hayes Turner, was among those lynched by the mob. When the pregnant widow proclaimed her husband’s innocence and called on authorities to act, she became the next target.

NAACP journalist Walter White detailed eyewitnesses accounts of the episode in a 1929 book, writing that Turner was charred but still alive when the mob took a knife to her abdomen and stomped on the unborn child who tumbled out.

During Wednesday’s vote, it is expected that an amendment will be included that features the 2018 bill passed by the Senate known as the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act.

That bipartisan legislation, sponsored by a trio of black lawmakers including Senators Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Cory Booker, D-N.J. and Tim Scott, R-S.C,. amended the U.S. code to specify lynching as a “deprivation of civil rights.”

“Lynching has been used as a pernicious tool of radicalized violence, terror and oppression and is a stain on the soul of our nation,” Booker said in a statement last week. “While we cannot undo the irrevocable damage of lynching and its pervasive legacy, we can ensure that we as a country make clear that lynching will not be tolerated.”

When first announcing that the bill was headed to the floor last week, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer marveled at how long it has taken for the U.S. to make lynching a federal hate crime.

“It is never too late to do the right thing and address these gruesome, racially motivated acts of terror that have plagued our nation’s history,” Hoyer said.

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