On Tuesday, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law, making lynching a federal hate crime. “Racial hate isn’t an old problem. It’s a persistent problem,” said Biden. “Hate never goes away, it only hides under the rocks. If it gets a little bit of oxygen, it comes roaring back out, screaming. What stops it? All of us.”
The new law ends a 122-year effort to make lynching a federal crime. The first attempt occurred in 1900 when antilynching legislation was introduced by Rep. George Henry White of North Carolina, the only African American in Congress at the time. That bill failed, as did the nearly 200 antilynching bills introduced in Congress during the first half of the 20th century. Between 1890 and 1952, seven presidents petitioned Congress to end lynching. And between 1920 and 1940, the House of Representatives passed three strong antilynching measures, though none passed the Senate.
The enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was the closest Congress ever came in the post-Reconstruction era to enacting antilynching legislation until 2020. In that year, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was passed by the House by a vote of 410 to 4. But it was held up in the Senate by Sen. Rand Paul, who wanted an amendment that would apply a “serious bodily injury standard” for a crime to be considered as lynching.
Here is what you should know about lynching and the new antilynching law.
What is lynching?
Lynching is a form of violence in which a mob kills or attempts to kill a person suspected of a crime, under the pretext of administering justice without trial. The term has become a synonym for execution by hanging, but lynching can take many forms and often includes inflicting torture and corporal mutilation. The current legal definition of lynching includes “serious bodily harm.”
Lynching is a form of terrorist activity since it is intended to affect not just the victim but to spread fear to a particular group of people. “Lynching has typically sent a message to an entire community that ‘you’re not safe here’ or ‘you could be next.’ Lynching has typically been motivated by racial animus and harms an entire community,” said Justin Hansford, a law professor at Howard University.
How common is lynching?
From the end of the Civil War to 1968, 15 U.S. states had Jim Crow laws, legislation that legalized racial segregation. These laws provided legal cover for acts of violence against Black Americans.
During this period (from 1882-1968), 4,743 recorded lynchings occurred in the United States. Almost three-fourths of the victims were Black (a total 3,446 victims), while just over 1-in-4 were white (1,297 victims). More than three-fourths of all lynchings (79%) occurred in the South. Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929. Mississippi had the highest number with 581, followed by Georgia with 531, and Texas with 493.
Five states had no lynchings during this period (Alaska, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut), while seven states (Arizona, Idaho, Maine, Nevada, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin) had no recorded lynchings of those who were Black. In 16 states, a greater number of white people than Black people were lynched (California, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming). Most lynchings outside the South were of those who were white, and usually for such crimes as murder or theft of livestock.
The last recorded lynching in the United States occurred in 1981. But since 2000, there have been at least eight suspected lynchings of Black men and teenagers in Mississippi, according to court records and police reports.
What is a hate crime?
According to the Justice Department, when used in a hate crime law, the word “hate” does not mean rage, anger, or general dislike. In this context “hate” means bias against people or groups with specific characteristics that are defined by the law.
At the federal level, hate crime laws include crimes committed on the basis of the victim’s perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. The “crime” in hate crime is often a violent crime, such as assault, murder, arson, vandalism, or threats to commit such crimes. It may also cover conspiring or asking another person to commit such crimes, even if the crime was never carried out.
What changes does the new law make?
The new law amends 18 U.S. Code § 249, the hate crime acts, to include:
(5) LYNCHING.—Whoever conspires to commit any offense under paragraph (1), (2), or (3) shall, if death or serious bodily injury (as defined in section 2246 of this title) results from the offense, be imprisoned for not more than 30 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both.
(6) OTHER CONSPIRACIES.—Whoever conspires to commit any offense under paragraph (1), (2), or (3) shall, if death or serious bodily injury (as defined in section 2246 of this title) results from the offense, or if the offense includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, be imprisoned for not more than 30 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both.
Who was Emmitt Till?
Born in 1941, Emmett Till grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood in Chicago. In August 1955, at the age of 14, he traveled to Mississippi to spend time with his cousins. Three days after arriving in Money, Mississippi, Till and a group of teenagers entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. Till purchased bubble gum and, in later accounts, was accused of either whistling at, flirting with, or touching the hand of Carolyn Bryant, a white female whose husband, Roy Bryant, owned the store.
Four days after the alleged incident at the store, Till was kidnapped from his uncle’s home by Bryant and Bryant’s half-brother, J.W. Milam. The two men brutally beat the teenager, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a large metal fan, and tossed his body into the Tallahatchie River. When Till’s body was discovered three days later, his face was so mutilated he could only be positively identified by the ring on his finger — a signet ring engraved with his late father’s initials that his mother had given him a day before he left Chicago.
The teen’s body was sent back to Chicago, and his mother opted for an open casket to show the world how her son was brutally tortured. Tens of thousands of people came during the five days Till’s body was on display at his church. Two black publications, Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender, published graphic images of the body. The reaction to the murder helped spark the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks is reported to have said she was thinking about Till when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.