In one of his last major acts in Congress, retiring U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, has likely helped correct a century-old wrong.
Rush is the chief sponsor of the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, which passed the U.S. House 422-3 last week and now awaits Senate approval.
If the bill becomes law, any hate crime — or conspiracy to commit one — that results in a victim being seriously injured or killed could be also federally prosecuted as a lynching.
Conviction under the act carries a maximum of 30 years in prison.
Sure, hate crimes are already illegal. But by making lynching a distinct federal crime, the nation finally acknowledges how the practice is particularly heinous because it has been almost singularly used against Black citizens and people of color to brutally enforce a racist social and political order.
“The House has sent a resounding message that our nation is finally reckoning with one of the darkest and most horrific periods of our history, and that we are morally and legally committed to changing course,” Rush said in a statement.
A meaningful step
It’s taken 104 years and 200 unsuccessful attempts to pass a federal anti-lynching law, which underscores the need for the Senate to pass this one with haste.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, and then-Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, led an unsuccessful effort in 2018 to make lynching a federal crime.
The bill was held up in the Senate by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky.
Paul said the bill, as written then, would give prosecutors the ability to file lynching charges even if the hate crime victim received minor injuries.
Under the current bill, a victim would have to receive serious bodily injury or death. Paul has voiced support for this bill.
“Lynching is a form of racialized violence that has permeated much of our nation’s past and must now be reckoned with,” Booker said in a statement while introducing the new bill before the Senate last week.
Said Scott: “While we cannot erase our nation’s past, we can work toward a better future for all Americans. The Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act will do just that.”
Had such a law been in place in 1955, there would have been a chance for justice in the case of the act’s namesake, Emmett Till.
Till, a young Chicagoan, was lynched by two Mississippi racists for allegedly whistling at a white female store clerk.
His killer were acquitted by an all-white local jury. But after the trial, the two men — knowing the law permitted them from being retried in state court after their acquittal — admitted in a magazine interview they killed Till.
“The failure of Congress to codify federal anti-lynching legislation — despite more than 200 attempts since 1900 — meant that 99 percent of lynching perpetrators walked free,” Rush said, adding the bill is “a meaningful step toward correcting this historical injustice.”
But how would the law be used?
We can certainly see the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act being used against the George Zimmermans of the world, or those like the three Georgia white men sentenced recently in the 2020 of killing a Black man, Ahmaud Arbery. As it should.
But what about police departments, jails and prisons with longstanding patterns of seriously injuring or killing Black, Brown or Indigenous citizens?
If the law is designed to correct history, then it must recognize that institutions have played just as large a role in lynching as have random mobs of angry whites.
We look forward to President Joe Biden’s signing it into law.
But the real test of the law will be prosecutors’ willingness to use it.
Send letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.