In 1955, Chicagoan Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy spending the summer in Mississippi, was abducted, tortured and brutally murdered over allegations that he whistled at a white woman. His body was later recovered from the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck to weigh him down. He had been shot in the head.
A month later, an all-white jury acquitted his murderers, who later boldly admitted their crime in a paid interview with Look magazine.
Even the horror of that crime, the scandalous acquittal and taunting acknowledgment of its commission was not enough to bring congressional action against lynching. By that time, Congress had already tried and failed for more than half a century to make lynching a federal crime. The first attempt came in 1900. More than 200 attempts would follow, foiled each time by white segregationists. The Equal Justice Initiative noted in a report that more than 6,500 Americans were lynched between 1865 and 1950.
Now, 67 years after Till's death, the U.S. Senate at long last passed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act by unanimous voice vote. It followed passage in the House, where three Republican representatives, Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Chip Roy of Texas, voted against it.
This long overdue legislation carries a penalty of up to 30 years' imprisonment for those convicted of the federal hate crime, which is defined as a "conspired, bias-motivated offense which results in death or serious bodily injury." It awaits signing by President Joe Biden.
Some have dismissed the passage as a symbolic gesture. But symbols are part of how we define our values as a society. This legislation states that racially motivated killings are, in fact, hate crimes worthy of separate and specific punishment. For the first time, the U.S. Criminal Code makes lynching a civil rights violation.
And it is more than symbolic. Lynchings look different now, but they're still happening. Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was out jogging in early 2020 near Brunswick, Ga., when he was chased down in a vehicle by three white men and shot to death. Though police quickly arrived on the scene, the local district attorney advised them not to make arrests. Two months would elapse before a video of the incident went viral, triggering an investigation and arrests by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation noted that the state had no law at the time providing for specific hate crimes prosecutions.
Minnesota had its own shameful incident in June 1920, when six Black circus workers were accused of rape in Duluth. A mob broke down the doors and windows of the local jail to seize the men. Local authorities ordered police not to fire their weapons to protect the prisoners. Three of those men — Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie — were hanged to death from a light pole while thousands watched. No one was ever prosecuted.
To its credit, Minnesota passed anti-lynching legislation the following year.
It has taken far too long for Congress to take decisive action against such horrific crimes. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., said after the bill passed that although nothing could erase the pain inflicted on Black men, women and children "who were shameful instruments of terror," the bill marked "an important step in our efforts to reckon with the racialized violence that has stained our country's history."
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison told an editorial writer that federal passage affirmed equal protection under the law. "The law signals our values," he said. "We need federal, state and local governments to all join together in saying we're not going to have this."
Ellison recently visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., the first memorial dedicated to the history of lynchings and other abuses, including the Duluth lynching. Ellison said he is trying to bring an exhibit here, and he recalled how his grandfather, active in the civil rights movement, was frequently threatened with lynching.
"Lynching was meant to terrorize Black people," he said. "But it also did something terrible to white people. It normalized evil." He recalled a wall at the museum that carries this dedication:
"For the hanged and beaten. For the shot, drowned, and burned. For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized. For those abandoned by the rule of law. We will remember. With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice. With courage because peace requires bravery. With persistence because justice is a constant struggle. With faith because we shall overcome."
There is more to be done, but passage of this law brings us a step closer to realizing justice for all.