President Biden on Tuesday signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act to make lynching a federal hate crime, in a historic first that comes after more than a century of failed efforts against racial violence.
The new law amends 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.
“For a long time, lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone, not everyone belongs in America, not everyone is created equal,” Biden said. “Innocent men, women and children hung by nooses from trees, bodies burned and drowned and castrated. Their crimes? Trying to vote, trying to go to school, trying to own a business or preach the gospel. False accusations of murder, arson and robbery. Simply being Black.”
Lawmakers tried, and failed, to pass anti-lynching bills nearly 200 times. The earliest such attempt 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 bill that passed the House but was filibustered in the Senate by Southern Democrats, many of whom opposed it in the name of “states’ rights.”
The Emmett Till Antilynching Act was introduced in 2019 by Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) in the House and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) in the Senate. It is named for the 14-year-old Black boy whose brutal torture and killing in Mississippi in 1955 sparked the civil rights movement.
On Tuesday, Biden paid tribute to the Till family for finding “purpose through your pain” — and also emphasized that the law was not just about past crimes but about those who remain victims of racial hatred.
“Racial hate is an old problem. It’s a persistent problem,” Biden said. “Hate never goes away. It only hides, it hides under the rocks. Given just a little bit of oxygen, it comes roaring back out, screaming.”
Biden and Vice President Harris both also paid tribute to Ida B. Wells, a Black investigative journalist who in the late 1800s and early 1900s documented the barbaric nature of lynching in extensive detail. (In 2020, Wells was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize special citation for her work.)
Michelle Duster, Wells’s great-granddaughter who spoke at the ceremony Tuesday, noted that Wells had visited President William S. McKinley at the White House in 1898 to urge him to make lynching a federal crime, though efforts to enact such legislation would fail for 124 more years.
Shortly after she stepped up to the podium, Duster said she needed a moment to take everything in.
“We finally stand here today, generations later, to witness this historic moment,” Duster said. “We are here today because of the tenacity of the civil rights leaders and commitment of members of Congress who are here today.”
Harris, who was a co-sponsor of the legislation when she was a senator, said they were gathered Tuesday to do “unfinished business” to declare that lynching is and always has been a hate crime. The victims of lynching were business owners, teachers, activists, Harris said — and for their families, the stories of those crimes were “not lines in a history book, but vivid memories.”
“As we recognize them, as we recognize our history,” Harris said.
Earlier this month, more than three years after its introduction, the Senate passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act unanimously. Booker said in a tweet that he was “overjoyed” by the legislation’s passage.
“The time is past due to reckon with this dark chapter in our history and I’m proud of the bipartisan support to pass this important piece of legislation,” he said.
In a statement, Rush called lynching “a long-standing and uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy.”