Senate unanimously passes anti-lynching bill after century of failure

Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) speaks during a news conference about the Emmett Till Antilynching Act on Feb. 26, 2020. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

 By Felicia Sonmez

      The Senate on Monday unanimously passed legislation that would make lynching a federal hate crime, in a historic first that comes after more than a century of failed efforts to pass such a measure.

The Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which was introduced by Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) in the House and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) in the Senate, now goes to President Biden for his signature.

It is named for the 14-year-old Black boy whose brutal torture and murder in Mississippi in 1955 sparked the civil rights movement.

Booker said in a tweet Monday night that he was “overjoyed” by the legislation’s passage.

“The time is past due to reckon with this dark chapter in our history and I’m proud of the bipartisan support to pass this important piece of legislation,” he said.

In a statement, Rush called lynching “a long-standing and uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy.”

“Perpetrators of lynching got away with murder time and time again — in most cases, they were never even brought to trial. … Today, we correct this historic and abhorrent injustice,” he said.

The legislation would amend the U.S. Code to designate lynching a hate crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison. More than 4,000 people, mostly African Americans, were reported lynched in the United States from 1882 to 1968, in all but a handful of states. Ninety-nine percent of perpetrators escaped state or local punishment, according to Rush’s office.

The House last month approved the bill on a bipartisan 410-to-3 vote after an often-emotional debate.

Throughout history, lawmakers tried, and failed, to pass anti-lynching bills nearly 200 times. The earliest such attempt came in 1900, when Rep. George Henry White (R-N.C.), then the country’s only Black member of Congress, stood on the floor of the House and read the text of his unprecedented measure, which would have prosecuted lynchings at the federal level. The bill later died in committee.

Years later, Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer (R-Mo.) introduced an anti-lynching bill that passed the House but was filibustered in the Senate by Southern Democrats, many of whom opposed it in the name of “states’ rights.”

In floor remarks Monday night, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) hailed the measure’s passage but described Congress’s long delay in passing anti-lynching legislation as “a bitter stain on America.”

“While this will not erase the horrific injustices to which tens of thousands of African Americans have been subjected over the generations — nor fully heal the terror inflicted on countless others — it is an important step forward as we continue the work of confronting our nation’s past in pursuit of a brighter and more just future,” Schumer said.

In 2020, the House passed an earlier version of Rush’s legislation on an overwhelming bipartisan vote. But Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) objected to the measure’s unanimous passage in the Senate that year, saying that he feared the bill might “conflate lesser crimes with lynching” and that it would allow enhanced penalties for altercations that resulted in only “minor bruising.”

In a change from the 2020 measure, the latest version includes the words “death or serious bodily injury.” Paul said last month he had joined with Booker and Scott to rework the legislation and was satisfied with the changes.

Last month, Rush announced his retirement from Congress at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, the Chicago church that was the site of Till’s 1955 funeral. In his statement Monday night, the longtime lawmaker and civil rights activist said he looks forward to Biden signing the bill into law “very, very soon.”

“At this moment, I am reminded of Dr. King’s famous words: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’” Rush said.

       By Felicia Sonmez Felicia Sonmez is a national political reporter covering breaking news from the White House, Congress and the campaign trail. She was previously based in Beijing, where she worked for Agence France-Presse and The Wall Street Journal.

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