By Camm Ashford
On Tuesday, during a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House, President Joe Biden signed legislation to finally define lynching as a federal hate crime.
Congress first considered anti-lynching legislation more than 120 years ago. It failed to pass such legislation nearly 200 times, beginning with a bill introduced in 1900 by North Carolina Rep. George Henry White, the only black member of Congress at the time.
“Hundreds, hundreds of similar bills have failed to pass,” President Biden said. “Over the years, several federal hate crime laws were enacted, including one I signed last year to combat COVID-19 hate crimes, but no federal law, no federal law expressly prohibited lynching. None. Until today.”
The bill is named after the late 14-year-old Emmett Till, who in 1955 was abducted, beaten and brutally killed by two white men, who were subsequently acquitted by an all-white jury in Sumner, Mississippi. The two men, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, would go on to admit to Till’s murder the following year.
The outcome of the trial, coupled with Till’s mother’s insistence on holding an open-casket, public funeral to show her son’s brutalized body, served as a catalyst and turning point for the civil rights movement, with activists and leaders often evoking his memory.
“I was 8 years old when my mother put the photograph of Emmett Till’s brutalized body that ran in Jet magazine on our living room coffee table, pointed to it, and said, ‘This is why I brought my boys out of Albany, Georgia,’” lead House sponsor of the bill Rep. Bobby L. Rush, D-Illinois, said in a statement. “That photograph shaped my consciousness as a black man in America and changed the course of my life.”
President Biden noted, “Racial hate isn’t an old problem; it’s a persistent problem. And I know many of the civil rights leaders here know, and you heard me say it a hundred times: Hate never goes away; it only hides. It hides under the rocks. And given just a little bit of oxygen, it comes roaring back out, screaming. But what stops it is all of us, not a few. All of us have to stop it.”
The lead Senate sponsor of the bill Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said: “I feel a sense of joy. I can hear ancestors exhaling. It’s been far too long justice has been delayed and denied.”
Vice President Kamala Harris originally sponsored the legislation in June 2018, when she was representing California in the Senate, leading the effort with Sen. Booker and South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott.
The legislation that is now becoming law would define hate crime conspiracies leading to serious injury or deaths as lynchings, subject to federal prison sentences of up to 30 years. The sentencing enhancement is stronger than what had appeared in prior bills.
Lynching was a common practice in the American South in the decades after the Civil War. From 1877 to 1950, more than 4,000 black people were lynched, according to a historical count by the Equal Justice Initiative.
In Chattanooga, Ed Johnson, a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, was killed on the Walnut Street Bridge March 4, 1906. A white mob attempted to hang Johnson, but when their hanging attempts failed, they shot him to death. Johnson had been convicted in a county court and sentenced to death. Johnson’s lynching was followed by an unprecedented criminal trial at the Supreme Court, which ordered a stay of execution.
The Walnut Street Bridge in downtown Chattanooga has a history of being a site where lynchings took place.
“Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone–not everyone belongs in America and not everyone is created equal; terror to systematically undermine hard-fought civil rights; terror not just in the dark of the night but in broad daylight,” said President Biden.
“Innocent men, women and children hung by nooses from trees. Bodies burned and drowned and castrated. Their crimes? Trying to vote. Trying to go to school. To try and own a business or preach the Gospel. False accusations of murder, arson and robbery. Simply being Black.”