WASHINGTON – In 1900, 120 years ago this week, the nation's only black congressman stood on the House floor to read an unprecedented piece of anti-lynching legislation to a roomful of white faces.
Just over a year earlier, the congressman, Rep. George Henry White, R-N.C., had witnessed the bloody Wilmington race riot in which mobs of white supremacists overthrew the city's multiracial government while killing up to 60 black people with impunity. White had engaged in painstaking research, tracking down every lynching victim he could find, in Wilmington and in every corner of the country over the past two years.
Why wasn't the federal government doing anything about it, he asked. "I tremble with horror for the future of our nation," he said, "when I think what must be the inevitable result if mob violence is not stamped out of existence and law once permitted to reign supreme."
His bill never even made it out of committee.
Now, more than a century later, the House of Representatives may finally finish what White started.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., announced Thursday that the House will vote next week to make lynching a federal hate crime, which Congress failed to do nearly 200 times in the 20th century since White's bill in 1900. Hoyer said that while the bill is long overdue, "it is never too late to do the right thing and address these gruesome, racially motivated acts of terror that have plagued our nation's history."
The bill, called the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, would make lynching, and mob killing generally, punishable up to life in prison. Introduced in the House by Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., it passed the Senate last year, where it was spearheaded by Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Tim Scott, R-S.C.
Lawmakers have pitched the bill as a tool to both confront decades of racial terror and to ensure lynchings are never tolerated again.
Between 1882 and 1968, more than 4,700 people were lynched, according to the Tuskegee Institute.
Nearly 2,000 of those occurred after White's original bill to prosecute lynchings failed.
Amy Kate Bailey, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-author of "Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence," said White's decision to force the issue of lynchings on the House floor would have been an "extraordinarily risky" maneuver for the lone black lawmaker.
White pressed on, but even after a moving speech on the House floor in which he called out his colleagues by name, the bill promptly died in committee.
Bailey said the legislation the House will vote on Wednesday may be symbolic to a certain extent, but is particularly important to the descendants of lynching victims. People shouldn't "try to paint this as an issue that is somehow buried in the past," Bailey said.
"Anyone who wants to suggest that we're actually beyond a point of racial tensions that could spill over into some sort of violence, I think they're fooling themselves," she said. "I think we need a federal protection, particularly given the level of rhetoric that seems to be gaining currency again today."
If the bill passes on Wednesday, it will head to President Donald Trump's desk to be signed into law.