Biden Signs Bill Making Lynching a Federal Hate Crime
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Tuesday did something lawmakers have been trying to do for more than 120 years — with a stroke of his pen he made lynching, a vile form of domestic terrorism and murder, a federal hate crime.
In fact, so anxious was he to sign the Emmett Till Antilynching Act that he dispensed with form — remarks said and with the signing to follow — and broke right for table holding the bill as he, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells, walked from the West Wing into the White House Rose Garden.
“It’s a little unusual to do a bill signing, not saying anything, and then speaking after, but that’s how we set it up,” Biden said, beaming.
“The bill I just signed into law … makes lynching a federal hate crime for the first [time] in American history,” he said when he finally reached the microphone.
The act is named for the Black teenager whose murder in Mississippi in the summer of 1955 was one of the galvanizing moments of the civil rights era.
At the time of his death, Till, 14, was visiting relatives and was alleged to have whistled at a white woman.
The teenager was kidnapped, beaten and shot in the head before a large metal fan was tied to his neck with barbed wire and his body thrown into a river.
His mother, Mamie Till, insisted his body be returned to his home city of Chicago, Illinois, and then had it displayed in an open casket at his funeral to show the world the brutality her child had suffered.
Two white men, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, were tried for the murder, but were acquitted by an all-white-male jury.
Both men later admitted to a report that they had in fact kidnapped and killed Till.
Biden recalled that as Mamie Till, whose own family had fled the Mississippi Delta decades earlier, dropped her son off at the train station, she told him there were certain unwritten rules he had to follow in the South.
“‘Be very careful how you speak,’” he said, quoting the young man’s mother. “’Say, “yes, sir” and “no sir,” and do not hesitate to humble yourself.’”
“Too many Black parents have to use that same admonition today,” he said. “They have to tell their children the same things when it comes to encounters with law enforcement.”
As members of Till’s family looked on, the president recalled how Republican Rep. George Henry White, of North Carolina, the only Black member of the 56th Congress, tried to pass an anti-lynching bill in 1900.
White’s efforts went nowhere due to the apathy of Republicans and the outright hostility of Southern Democrats. In the decades since, similar legislation has been proposed “nearly 200 times,” Biden said. “It wasn’t until March of this year that it finally came to pass.”
During that time, scores of other federal hate crime laws were enacted, “including one I signed last year to combat COVID-19 hate crimes,” Biden said. “But no federal law expressly prohibited lynching. None. Until today.
“Thank you for never giving up,” he said to Till’s family. “For never ever giving up.”
In his remarks, Biden also spoke of how over the years, as bill after bill languished on Capitol Hill, lynchings were used to terrorize and intimidate Blacks across in the United States.
More than 4,400 Blacks died by lynching between 1877 and 1950, mostly in the South, he said.
“Lynching was pure terror, to enforce the lie that not everyone, not everyone belongs in America, not everyone is created equal,” he said.
The president also stressed that despite the history of lynching that he recalled in his remarks, including Emmitt Till’s own murder, “this law is not just about the past.”
“It’s about the present, and our future as well. From the bullets fired into the back of Ahmaud Arbery to the countless other acts of violence and the countless victims, known and unknown, to the racial hatred … that brought a mob carrying torches out of the fields of Charlottesville just a few years ago.
“Racial hate isn’t an old problem, it’s a persistent problem,” Biden said.
The new law makes it possible to prosecute a crime as a lynching when a conspiracy to commit a hate crime leads to death or serious bodily injury, according to the bill’s key sponsor, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill.
A conviction under the law comes with punishments of up to 30 years in prison and fines.
The House approved the bill 422-3 on March 7, with eight members not voting, after it cleared the Senate by unanimous consent.
Vice President Harris also spoke of the lengthy history that led to Tuesday’s bill signing, and, admittedly going off script, lauded the importance of the Black press in keeping the issue alive.
“It’s important to make sure we always have storytellers in our community who will tell the truth when no one else is willing to tell it,” she said.
“Today we are gathered to do unfinished business,” Harris continued. “To acknowledge the horror in this part of our history, to state unequivocally that lynching is and has always been a hate crime and to make clear that the federal government may now prosecute these crimes as such.
“Lynching is not a relic of the past. Racial acts of terror still occur in our nation. And when they do, we must all have the courage to name them, and hold the perpetrators to account,” she concluded.
Among those President Biden thanked for making the moment possible were Vice President Harris, who was a key co-sponsor of the bill when she was in the Senate, the aforementioned Rush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Tim Scott, R-S.C.
In a written statement, Booker said, “As our nation strives to become a more perfect union, we must reckon with America’s past, including the history of racialized violence that has permeated our nation.
“Anti-lynching legislation will not heal the pain experienced by the more than 4,000 African American men, women and children who were lynched during the 19th and 20th centuries,” the senator said. “It will not reverse the fear and suffering that Black communities endured during those years as this shameful instrument of terror was wielded by white supremacists to intimidate and oppress. But signing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law is a necessary step that signals our nation is willing to confront the darkness of its past to move towards a brighter future.
“This day is more than just the result of the bipartisan efforts undertaken in the past weeks, months and years,” Booker continued. “Instead, it is the culmination of an endeavor that has spanned generations. The first of 200 attempts to make lynching a federal crime occurred in 1900.
“In 2018, I was proud to continue the fight alongside then-Senator Kamala Harris, and have worked with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to make sure this bill passes Congress. Now, with the president’s signature, we are finally able to say that, after a century’s worth of efforts, we have met the moment and done the right thing,” he said.
Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.
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