The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House passes anti-lynching bill that Rep. Bobby Rush says is decades overdue

Two years ago, Sen. Rand Paul blocked unanimous passage of a similar measure

Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) in February 2020. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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The House on Monday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would make lynching a federal hate crime, two years after a similar effort passed the chamber but was held up by Sen. Rand Paul.

H.R. 55, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, was introduced by Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.). It would amend the U.S. Code to designate lynching a hate crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

More than 4,000 people, mostly African Americans, were reported lynched in the United States from 1882 to 1968, in all but a handful of states. Ninety-nine percent of perpetrators escaped state or local punishment, according to Rush’s office.

Monday’s 422-to-3 vote comes after lawmakers failed to pass anti-lynching bills nearly 200 times. The three “no” votes were cast by Republican Reps. Andrew S. Clyde (Ga.), Thomas Massie (Ky.) and Chip Roy (Tex.).

Supporters of the legislation called its passage long overdue.

On Feb. 28, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) urged the House to pass the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which would designate the violent act a hate crime. (Video: The Washington Post)

In a statement Monday night, Rush said the bill’s passage marked “a day of enormous consequence for our nation.”

“I was eight years old when my mother put the photograph of Emmett Till’s brutalized body that ran in Jet magazine on our living room coffee table, pointed to it, and said, ‘this is why I brought my boys out of Albany, Georgia,’" Rush said. “That photograph shaped my consciousness as a Black man in America, changed the course of my life, and changed our nation.”

He added: “But modern-day lynchings like the murder of Ahmaud Arbery make abundantly clear that the racist hatred and terror that fueled the lynching of Emmett Till lynching are far too prevalent in America to this day.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called on the Senate to “take immediate action and send this bill to the President’s desk."

“Nearly seven decades later, the brutal murder of Emmett Till is forever seared into our collective memory. Sadly, hateful attacks are not yet a relic of the past: from the scourge of police violence to assaults on houses of worship. That is why the Democratic Congress is hard at work empowering our legal system with more tools to bring perpetrators to justice," she said in a statement.

Last month, Rush announced his retirement from Congress at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, the Chicago church that was the site of Till’s 1955 funeral. A longtime civil rights activist who has served in the House for three decades, Rush vowed to continue his fight for racial justice and equity outside Washington after he leaves Congress next year.

Rush’s legislation is named for Till, the 14-year-old Black boy whose brutal torture and murder in Mississippi sparked the civil rights movement.

Till, visiting from Chicago, was murdered after he was accused of whistling at and making sexual advances toward a White woman, Carolyn Bryant. 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, now known as Carolyn Donham, acknowledged in 2017 that Till did not make sexual advances toward her, contradicting her earlier testimony.

In 2020, the House passed a previous version of Rush’s bill on a 410-to-4 vote. But Paul (R-Ky.) objected to the measure’s unanimous passage in the Senate, saying that he feared the bill might “conflate lesser crimes with lynching” and that it would allow enhanced penalties for altercations that resulted in only “minor bruising.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), two of the legislation’s authors in the Senate, angrily rebuked Paul during the June 2020 floor debate. Booker noted that the country was in the midst of a reckoning over its long history of racial violence and that passing the anti-lynching bill could offer a glimmer of hope.

“I have had children break down with me this week wondering if this would be a country that values their lives as much as White people’s lives,” Booker said at the time. “I had to explain to grown men this week that there is still hope in America, that we could make change in America, that we could grow and heal in America, that we could make this a more perfect union.”

The legislation ultimately went nowhere.

In a change from the 2020 measure, the latest version includes the words “death or serious bodily injury.”

In a statement Monday, Paul said he joined with Booker and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to rework the legislation and supports the version that was expected to pass the House.

“I’m pleased to have worked with Senators Booker and Scott to strengthen the final product and ensure the language of this bill defines lynching as the absolutely heinous crime that it is, and I’m glad to cosponsor this bipartisan effort,” Paul said.

During Monday’s floor debate, Rep. Troy A. Carter (D-La.) said that lynching “isn’t just a horror of the past” and noted that the measure would “incredibly and tragically for the first time make lynching a federal hate crime in America.”

“Passing the Antilynching Act is a historic step toward justice and a signal that our nation will finally reckon with the dark chapter of our history,” Carter said.

Several House Republicans voiced support for the legislation during Monday’s floor debate, with some pointing to the changes made after Paul’s objections.

“I am grateful that we’re going to be voting today on this version of this bill,” said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.). “I think this is a much-improved version, as opposed to the one that came out of committee. And I’m grateful to all those who’ve worked hard on this to try to make this a better bill.”

Booker hailed the House’s passage of the legislation Monday night.

“I applaud the passage in the House of Representatives of the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, led by @RepBobbyRush, and urge the Senate to act. It’s past time we reconcile with the dark history of lynching in this country,” he said in a tweet.

The House’s earliest attempt to pass anti-lynching legislation 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-Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) pointed to the 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.”

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