The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t just cost America 260,000 deaths (and counting), thousands of businesses shuttered and millions of jobs lost. It also sabotaged a historic opportunity to address a long-standing stain on our national conscience.
Between 1882 and 1950, some 4,730 people – 3,487 Black and 1,293 white – were lynched in the United States.
Lynching is generally defined as an “extrajudicial” killing, the execution of someone suspected of a crime, without due process of law. The victims were almost universally innocent of any crime, as in the case of Emmett Till, a Black teenager brutally murdered in 1955 in Mississippi. His offense? He allegedly whistled at a white woman.
You’ve probably seen photographs of mobs surrounding victims hanged from trees. Such scenes were commonplace across the Southern states in the enforcement of the notorious Jim Crow segregation laws. More recently, lynching has rightly earned a new definition as “racial terrorism” for its intended effect on Black and other minority populations.
Adding to the sheer atrocity, the many thousands of people who carried out these killings were rarely prosecuted and almost never convicted of any crime. In many cases, local police and other public officials participated in these heinous acts.
The outrage against this injustice stirred Americans to action. Because most states resisted efforts to outlaw lynching, it required a federal response. Rep. George Henry White, the only Black member of Congress at the time, introduced the first federal anti-lynching law in 1900. It never made it out of committee.
Eighteen years later, a Missourian rose to the challenge. Rep. Leonidas Dyer of St. Louis had witnessed the East St. Louis race riots of 1917 in which up to 250 Black citizens were killed. He knew all about the widespread lynchings in the South and some in Missouri as well. He introduced the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which made lynching a felony subject to federal prosecution and punishable by prison terms not only for participants but also for negligent local authorities responsible for public safety.
Dyer’s bill, with strong impetus from greater national publicity on the issue, finally passed in the House of Representatives in 1922. But it died in the Senate after Southern senators used a filibuster to assure the law would never see the light of day.
Dyer tried again in 1923 and 1924 with the same results. Congress made repeated attempts in the 1930s and ’40s, with Dyer’s bill as the template, to no avail. Later another Missouri lawmaker, Sen. Tom Hennings, championed anti-lynching legislation and other civil rights reforms in the 1950s only to meet the same obstruction from his Southern colleagues.
Fast forward to 2005. The Senate unanimously adopted a resolution apologizing for its past failure to pass anti-lynching legislation. At that point, Congress had tried more than 200 times.
It looked like a lost cause until 2018, when the three Black members of the Senate – Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina – sponsored the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act. The Senate passed it unanimously (again) but the House failed to act on it before the end of the 115th Congress in January 2019.
The House later did respond, however, with its own bill, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which passed by a vote of 410-4 on Feb. 26, 2020, just as the pandemic was starting. It went to the Senate for seemingly quick passage, and President Trump signaled he would sign it into law.
The dream of generations of
Americans seeking racial reconciliation was in easy reach. This was like a football team having first-and-goal from the
But the Senate fumbled the ball. First, the pandemic erupted, dominating the attention of Congress and pushing the Till Act far down the calendar. It finally came up in June, whereupon Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) complained the language defining lynching was too broad. His objection torpedoed “unanimous consent,” but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – Paul’s fellow Kentuckian – chose not to bypass the standoff and simply order a roll call vote. The Till Act has languished in the Senate docket ever since and may die with this session of Congress in January.
And thus would continue the long legacy of failure on this issue. As Paul and others have argued, a federal anti-lynching law would be largely symbolic. Since 1969 the U.S. Department of Justice has had a civil rights conspiracy statute at its disposal to prosecute “hate crimes that were described as lynchings in public discourse” (quoting a Congressional report).
Congress strengthened that enforcement power in 2009 with the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named after a gay man (Shepard) and a Black man who were tortured and murdered by gangs in 1998.
The Till Act, however, would directly define lynching and cast its seriousness into concrete at the federal level, overcoming the unwillingness of states to acknowledge past racial violence. As Congress has noted, “it remains important to enact federal anti-lynching legislation due to the historical context of these violent incidents.”
We can’t bring back those 4,370 victims or levy justice on their murderers. But we can take an important step in healing our deep racial divisions with the Till Act. In the words of the poet Maya Angelou:
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
with courage, need not be lived again.