WASHINGTON — The House overwhelmingly passed legislation Wednesday that would make lynching a federal crime, a move supporters say is long overdue in a country whose history is stained with the atrocities.
“I cannot imagine our nation did not have any federal law against lynching when so many African Americans have been lynched,’’ said Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois and a lead sponsor of the bill. “Lynching was the preferred method of the Ku Klux Klan, the preferred choice of (torturing and murdering African-Americans).”
The Emmett Till Antilynching Act is named in memory of a 14-year-old black teenager who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. His brutal death was a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.
Rush said he proposed the bill at the urging of Jesse Jackson, who called last year to ask whether he knew there wasn’t such a law. “I heard the alarm,’’ Rush told USA TODAY.
The House approved the bill 410 to 4.
During debate, Democrats and Republicans called the legislation overdue and cited lynchings that happened in their districts and states.
”We cannot simply wash away the past,’’ said Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican from Nebraska, who was a cosponsor last year on a bipartisan anti-lynching bill.
Bacon said it’s important to acknowledge “that evil did occur.”
Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the House GOP whip, said he and other Republicans will also try to be added as co-sponsors. “It shouldn’t be partisan. It’s not partisan,” he said. “I haven’t seen anybody who is against this bill.”
Rush said he has been assured by Senate co-sponsors of a similar bill that if passed in the House, it would quickly be brought up for a vote in that chamber. Supporters hope to have it signed into law by the end of February in honor of Black History Month.
The Senate passed a similar bill last year but would have to vote on a version approved by the House on Wednesday. The bipartisan Senate bill was proposed by Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California and Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina.
The bill would add language to the Civil Rights Act of 1968, making lynching a violation.
“Lynchings were horrendous, racist acts of violence,’’ Harris said. “For far too long Congress has failed to take a moral stand and pass a bill to finally make lynching a federal crime...This justice is long overdue.”
’I’m a black man in America’
For Rush, the legislation is personal. He remembers when his mother gathered the family in their home in Chicago and showed the picture of Emmett Till on the cover of Jet Magazine.
The teenager’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, had an open casket funeral in Chicago to show the world how Till, who had been visiting family in Mississippi, had been brutally beaten and shot in the head. Witnesses said two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till, whose body was later found floating in the Tallahatchie River.
“It changed my life,’’ recalled Rush, who said he was about 7 or 8 years old. “It made me much more aware … of the impediments to my life, the racism that permeates in America.”
Ashraf H.A. Rushdy, a professor at Wesleyan University and author of “American Lynching” and the “End of American Lynching,” called lynching “the original hate crime.”
”It should have its own law, its own section ...,’’ he said. “It’s the responsible thing to do and the historically accurate thing to do.”
Supporters said it’s been more than 100 years since the House passed an anti-lynching bill that failed in the Senate. They said nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced during the first half of the 20th century.
“It’s not for lack of trying,’’ Rushdy said. “The Senate for 150 years refused to do that. It stopped every single bill including two that passed the House. ... It’s the Senate that is the body that is failing us.”
He said the Senate had long been controlled by Southern lawmakers, many of whom supported states rights and were leery of backing a federal law. Plus, he said, lynching “is a historically loaded term.”
Meanwhile, he said many states adopted anti-lynching bills.
There were some symbolic gestures in Congress, he said, including a 2005 apology for inaction proposed by then-Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and a 2017 joint resolution condemning racial violence in Charlottesville, Va.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland called theanti-lynchingbill “long overdue.”
“Lynching is a blot on the history of America,” he said. “But it’s never too late to do the right thing.”
Rush called it a “shame” that Congress hadn’t passed such as law.
“To live in a nation where there is no federal statute … was totally reprehensible and unjust,’’ he said. “It really was a failure of our nation and Congress to not eventually prohibit lynching.”
There were 4,743 lynchings from 1882 to 1968, according to the national NAACP. Of those 3,446 were black. Most lynchings took place in the South.
“Make no mistake lynching is terrorism,’’ said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Rush, who was born in Georgia, said one of his uncles was lynched in a rural part of the state.
“I’m a black man in America,’’ he said. “I just wanted to make sure that I utilize my vantage point as a member of Congress to enact legislation that, for the first time, will make lynching a violation of federal law.”
The history of lynching in the US
Some congressional lawmakers have also been pushing to make civil rights landmarksa part of the National Park Service – including the Tallahatchie County Courthouse where the two men accused of killing Till were later acquitted by an all white jury.
The Equal Justice Initiative, founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson, an Alabama attorney, recently opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, to honor blacks who were lynched from 1877 to 1950.
Read more at USAToday.com.