House Overwhelmingly Passes Legislation Making Lynching a Federal Hate Crime

February 26, 2020 by Dan McCue
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., speaks during a news conference about the "Emmett Till Antilynching Act" which would designate lynching as a hate crime under federal law, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Emmett Till, pictured at right, was a 14-year-old African-American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family's grocery store. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The House, in an overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion, passed legislation that would classify lynching as a federal hate crime.

The Emmett Till Antilynching Act, introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., passed on a vote of 410-4.

The Act is named for Emmett Till, who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for supposedly whistling at a white woman. Till was 14 at the time of his death.

The members who voted against the bill were Republicans Louie Gohmert, of Texas, Thomas Massie, of Kentucky, and Ted Yoho, of Florida, and Independent Rep. Justin Amash, of Michigan.

Speaking at a press conference before the vote, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said “Lynching is a blot on the history of America.”

“The even greater blot is the silence, that for too long [was] maintained in the context of what people knew was happening,” Hoyer continued. “Emmett Till was murdered on August 28, 1955, just eight years before the March on Washington. And as Congressman Rush has said, his brutal, vicious murder was, of course, a crime, but it was… not defined as just against Emmett Till, but against a whole race of people. That’s what a hate crime is, motivated by the dehumanization of others.”

Hoyer also noted that there is no question about who killed Emmett Till. It was, he said, “the husband of a woman … who said [Till] did this, that, or the other.”

In 2017, the woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, recanted her story during an interview with Timothy Tyson, a Duke University professor, who was writing a book about the case.

“This bill is too late coming, but it is never too late to do the right thing,” Hoyer said. “It will take the long overdue action of designating lynching as a federal hate crime. I am proud to bring this bill to the Floor.”

Congress has had a checkered past when it comes to lynching. In 1900, a House committee defeated legislation that would have made lynchings illegal. A later bill was filibustered in the Senate.

It wasn’t until 2018 that the Senate passed legislation making lynching a federal hate crime, but the bill died in the House.

Rep. Rush said in light of recent events, including the violence that erupted at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, and racially motivated shootings that have occurred in communities like El Paso, Texas, a tightening of the federal hate crime law is needed today perhaps more than ever.

“We are one step closer to finally outlawing this heinous practice and achieving justice for over four thousand victims of lynching, including Emmitt Till,” Rush said in a written statement. “Moreover, the importance of this bill cannot be overstated. From Charlottesville to El Paso, we are still being confronted with the same violent racism and hatred that took the life of Emmett and so many others. The passage of this bill will send a strong and clear message to the nation that we will not tolerate this bigotry.”

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told her fellow members on the floor Wednesday that while passage of the bill was welcome and long overdue, “it is a travesty that it has taken 120 years for the U.S. government to address this crime.”

“Make no mistake, lynching is terrorism,” she continued. “It’s terrorism directed at African Americans.”

“Lynching was commonly used for 256 years during the period of enslavement and for almost 100 years after slavery, well into the 1950s,” Bass said. “And frankly, even today periodically you will hear news stories of nooses being left on college campuses, in work locker rooms to threaten and terrorize African-Americans. A vicious reminder that the past is never that far away.”

After the vote, an obviously moved Rush, said, “Today is a historic day for this U.S. House of Representatives, this Congress, and the American people.”

“Being from Chicago, the death of Emmett Till sent shockwaves through my community and personally affected me and my family. However, his death would not be in vain, for it was the spark that ignited the long arc of the civil rights movement, leading us to this very moment,” Rush said.

“With the passage of this bill we correct a historical injustice, based on a lie, that took the life of this young man. We also bring justice to the over 4000 victims of lynching, most of them African-Americans, who have had their lives tragically, and horrifically cut short at the hands of racist mobs and hate-filled hordes. After 120 years, and 200 failed attempts, the House finally positions itself on the right side of history, outlawing the heinous act of lynching once and for all,” he concluded.

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