Congress Just Recognized Lynching as a Hate Crime. Here’s What That Means.

The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act sets a specific definition of lynching and triples the prison time for anyone convicted.
Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois, speaks during a news conference about the "Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act" on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 26, 2020. (AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite, File)

After more 240 attempts over the last 122 years, Congress successfully passed a bill to recognize lynching as a federal hate crime.

The bill, which President Joe Biden is expected to sign, not only triples the prison time for anyone convicted but also sets a specific definition of what constitutes lynching. 

The U.S. Senate unanimously voted to pass the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act Monday night,  just a week after the House of Representatives passed the bill with only three “no” votes, from Republicans Thomas Masse, Andrew Clyde, and Chip Roy.

“Lynching is a longstanding and uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy,” Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, the bill’s main sponsor, said in a statement Monday. “Perpetrators of lynching got away with murder time and time again—in most cases, they were never even brought to trial.”

When three white men, who have now been convicted of murder, chased down 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in their Georgia neighborhood and shot him, lawyers for the young Black man’s family called the crime a “modern-day lynching.” Since then, the term has been used to describe countless other crimes against Black Americans.

Under the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, however, the violent act would be charged as a federal hate crime if it has three elements: conspiracy; hatred toward someone’s race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation; and violence, including murder.

The new bill will also change the punishment. Under current federal hate crime laws, 10 years is the recommended prison time if death or kidnapping or sex abuse is not involved in the crime, according to U.S. Code. A lynching will specifically be punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

“A hate crime should have extra social penalty and stigma, in the same way we attach stigmas to someone being a terrorist instead of just a mass murderer,” said Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice. “It means something when you're a convicted terrorist. It says something about your place in society or society’s disapproval of your actions. Same for lynches now. They are in the back of the line the same way a terrorist would be, and that really matters.”

And according to him, what Arbery’s killers did would absolutely fall under the now-recognized definition of lynching.

“These men agreed that Ahmaud needed to be confronted, and if necessary, detained against his will or assaulted, or more,” Johnson said. “One would say if they followed him in their trucks armed with guns, that wasn’t a peaceful encounter they were about to enact. Did they take the steps to commit the act? ​​Of course they did.”

In fact, the crimes that created the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which allowed the McMichaels to face federal charges at all, would also both be considered lynchings under the new bill. In June 1998, James Byrd, a Black man in Jasper, Texas, was brutally beaten and murdered by three white supremacists. In October 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was also brutally beaten, tortured, and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming, because he was a gay man. 

The bill’s namesake, however, goes back even further. In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, was kidnapped from his great uncle’s Mississippi home, beaten, tortured, and killed by two white men after being accused of flirting with a white woman working at a grocery store.

A grand jury at the time decided not to charge either man in Till’s murder, although it marked a major starting point in what would become the fight for civil rights during the mid-20th century. Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, made the bold decision to hold an open-casket funeral for her son in Chicago, and photos of Till’s mutilated body were famously published in an issue of Jet Magazine, which nationalized the conversation about the brutality of racial violence in the south.

But even in 1900, 55 years before Till’s murder, the only Black member of the House at the time, Rep. George Henry White of North Carolina, proposed a bill recognizing lynching as a federal crime. Pro-segregation Democrats shot it down. Another bill passed in the House in 1922, but was successfully filibustered in the Senate. Several attempts in the 1930s and even the same year Till’s murder shocked the nation, were also successfully thwarted.

Between the years of 1882 and 1968, arguably the height of unchecked racial violence in the south, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the U.S., according to the NAACP. But even the civil organization acknowledges that their calculation is an underreported estimate.

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