Emmett Till Act Makes Lynching a Federal Hate Crime

The Emmett Till Antilynching Act was signed into law on March 29, classifying lynching as a federal hate crime. The policy enjoyed wide bipartisan support, with the bill passing 422-3 in the House and with a unanimous vote in the Senate. Representatives Roy (R-TX), Massie (R-KY), and Clyde (R-GA) voted against. Although lynching is already illegal in all fifty states, the Antilynching act specifies that it may be prosecuted on the federal level, with a possible sentence of up to 30 years in prison. In a statement on the law’s passage, co-sponsor Representative Bobby Rush (D-IL) remarked, “I am glad to see this bill receive unanimous support in the Senate — and near-unanimous support in the House of Representatives… At this moment, I am reminded of Dr. King’s famous words: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’”

A previous version of the law was introduced in 2020. It passed in the House but was stalled in the Senate. The Senate was attempting to pass the bill by unanimous consent, a procedure which allows the passage of a motion without a vote as long as no present member objects. It was held up by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who criticized the legislation as too broad.

The NAACP defines lynching as “the public killing of an individual who has not received any due process.” Though typically carried out by mobs of private citizens, they were often supported or abetted by public officials. Historically, lynchings overwhelmingly targeted Black Americans. Between 1882 and 1968 there were upwards of 4,000 lynchings, with counts differing and likely underreported.

The passage of the Antilynching Act marks a victory in the long fight to make lynching a federally recognized hate crime. In 1918 Representative Leonidas Dyer (R-MO) introduced major Anti-lynching legislation. It came close to passing in 1922, passing in the House but being blocked by the threat of filibuster in the Senate. Dyer continually introduced the bill throughout his tenure as representative, but Southern Democrats consistently prevented it from passing. 

The law is named in honor of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who was the victim of a lynching in 1955. While visiting family in Mississippi, Till was accused of whistling at a White shop owner, Carolyn Bryant. He was kidnapped, beaten, and shot by Bryant’s relatives, and his body was dumped in a nearby river. Neither of his killers were convicted. Emmet Till’s violent death and the impunity with which the offenders carried out the act have made him the face of the fight to pass anti-lynching legislation.

Though the passage of the bill is largely symbolic, as anything akin to lynching would now be covered by exisiting hate crime legislation, the law does increase the penalty for serious bodily harm done in the process of a hate crime from 10 years to 30 years.

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