While the Senate on Wednesday was discussing legislation that would make lynching a federal crime for the umpteenth time, I was discussing the bill with two journalists from other media outlets as we prepared to appear on a radio program recapping the year’s highs and lows in politics.
“How common are lynchings? Is that bill even needed,” one asked believing lynching was a thing of the past.
It is true lynching is not at its peak as it was when nearly 4,000 lynchings occurred between the late 19th and early 20th century, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit focusing on ending excessive punishment including mass incarceration.
But that does not mean the act is no longer grabbing headlines. A Black Lives Matter activist initially claimed her son had been lynched.
“They lynched my baby,” Melissa McKinnies wrote about her son Danye Jones’s death in October in a since-removed Facebook post. “I’m sick and losing my mind, but I had to let the world know what they did to my baby!”
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, McKinnies believes her son was killed in retaliation for her activism. She said her upbeat son was not suicidal and he had been hanged from a tree with a bedsheet unlike any of those owned by her family. But police are investigating the cause of death as a suicide.
The Washington Post’s Antonia Noori Farzan reported in early November three untimely deaths in St. Louis County over the past four years have led to some speculation that Ferguson, Mo., protesters are being systematically killed.
There is no evidence the deaths are a concerted effort, but for many Americans, how black people — specifically those working to dismantle white supremacy — have been tragically treated throughout history is not forgotten.
After the Senate unanimously passed legislation criminalizing lynching — including attempts to lynch and conspiracy to lynch — for the first time in U.S. history, on Wednesday, Sen. Cory Booker (D.-N.J.) spoke about its symbolism:
“Today is an emotional and historic day. For over a century, members of Congress have attempted to pass some version of a bill that would recognize lynching for what it is: a bias-motivated act of terror. And for more than a century, and more than 200 attempts, this body has failed. Today, we have righted that wrong and taken corrective action that recognizes this stain on our country’s history.”
The path to here was not an easy one. The Washington Post reported in 2005 that “powerful southern senators, such as Richard B. Russell Jr. (D-Ga.), whose name was given to the Senate office building where the resolution was drafted, used the filibuster to block votes” to make lynching a federal crime. The article said:
“Excerpts from the Congressional Record show some senators argued that such laws would interfere with states' rights. Others, however, delivered impassioned speeches about how lynching helped control what they characterized as a threat to white women and also served to keep the races separate, according to records provided by the Committee for a Formal Apology, a group that has lobbied the Senate.
‘Whenever a Negro crosses this dead line between the white and the Negro races and lays his black hand on a white woman, he deserves to die,’ segregationist Sen. James Thomas Heflin (D-Ala.) said in 1930."
This support for lynching was on the minds of many, especially black Americans in the South, during the 2018 midterm elections when Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) said she would sit with a supporter in the front row of a “public hanging.”
Hyde-Smith, who dismissed critics who attacked her remarks as an allusion to hanging, was ultimately reelected. She was the presiding officer during Wednesday’s vote making illegal an act that was once prevalent in her home state of Mississippi.
The saying “justice delayed is justice denied” will likely be some people’s view given that countless people responsible for lynching were never held accountable. But for others hoping efforts to build a more perfect union include re-examining America’s past — and unapologetically calling out wrongs — Wednesday’s vote was a step in the right direction of a walk that began long ago.