The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed legislation that would make lynching a federal hate crime, more than 100 years since the first such measure was introduced in Congress.
H.R. 35, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, was approved on a bipartisan 410-to-4 vote after a sometimes emotional debate in the House. Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), who sponsored the legislation, said the bill will “send a strong message that violence, and race-based violence in particular, has no place in American society.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also took to the floor to salute Rush for spearheading the bill and to urge members to support it.
“We cannot deny that racism, bigotry and hate still exist in America,” she said, citing the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, among other recent incidents.
The measure’s passage comes after 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 measure 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 2005, the Senate approved a resolution apologizing for its failure to enact anti-lynching legislation. Then-senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) pointed to the horrific impact of the chamber’s decades of inaction, declaring that “there may be no other injustice in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility.”
At least 4,742 people, mostly African Americans, were reported lynched in the United States from 1882 to 1968 in all but four states, the text of Rush’s legislation notes. Ninety-nine percent of perpetrators escaped state or local punishment, it adds.
“The crime of lynching succeeded slavery as the ultimate expression of racism in the United States following Reconstruction,” the measure states.
A separate version of the measure, the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, passed the Senate last year. It was introduced by the chamber’s three black senators: Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
In his House floor remarks Wednesday, Rush said he was “pleased that the language we are voting on today has already been approved by the Senate, and I am exceptionally hopeful that it will face no further obstacles on its path to the president’s desk.”
There are minor differences between the two measures, and House Democrats are optimistic the Senate will approve the House-passed version and send it to President Trump’s desk.
In a statement last week, Rush emphasized that the recent rise in attacks targeting people of color underscores the need for his legislation.
“From Charlottesville to El Paso, we are still being confronted with the same violent racism and hatred that took the life of Emmett and so many others,” Rush said. “The passage of this bill will send a strong and clear message to the nation that we will not tolerate this bigotry.”
Till was brutally beaten and lynched in a small town in Mississippi in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman at a grocery store. He was 14 years old at the time.
Two men were charged with murdering Till but were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. The men later confessed to the crime. Till’s accuser, Carolyn Bryant Donham, acknowledged in 2017 that Till did not make sexual advances toward her, contradicting her earlier testimony.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), whose congressional district includes the area where Till’s abduction and murder took place, at one point choked up during his floor remarks Wednesday in support of the bill.
“It’s kind of emotional for me, because I knew this young man’s mother before she died,” Thompson said, referring to Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who died in 2003 and whose insistence on an open casket for her son’s funeral helped spark the civil rights movement.
Thompson described Till-Mobley as a “very wonderful lady” who suffered a tragedy at the hands of “some dastardly individuals.”
“But more importantly, we are a better country than what that deed dictates,” Thompson said.
Only a handful of lawmakers — Republican Reps. Louie Gohmert (Texas), Thomas Massie (Ky.) and Ted Yoho (Fla.), and independent Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) — voted against the House measure.
Mike DeBonis, Meagan Flynn and DeNeen L. Brown contributed to this report.