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Senate backs bill to make lynching a federal hate crime as 2020 rivals Harris, Booker join forces

Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) in September during the Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) in September during the Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The Senate on Thursday unanimously backed a bill to make lynching a federal crime, a step cast as righting a historic wrong after nearly 100 years of failed attempts.

The legislation, approved on a voice vote, would ensure that lynching triggers an enhanced sentence under federal law, like other hate crimes. The measure was sponsored by the Senate’s three African American members: Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.).

Harris and Booker, who are rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, spoke graciously about their joint effort Thursday morning on the Senate floor. Booker had introduced the bill with Harris and Scott after what Harris described as 200 previous attempts by Congress to pass similar legislation.

Proponents of the measure expect the Democratic-led House to pass the legislation and send it to President Trump for his signature. A similar bill passed the Senate in December, but the House never acted on the measure.

Harris recounted the history of lynching in the United States and the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in rural Mississippi. Till, who was visiting from Chicago, was murdered after he was accused of whistling at and making sexual advances toward a white woman. The teen was kidnapped Aug. 28, 1955, and was tortured and shot. His mangled body was found days later in the Tallahatchie River.

Lynching, said Harris, “was an act of terror. It was murder. It was summary execution.” She said the bill was an opportunity to speak the truth about the past and offer some long-overdue justice.

Booker said that hate crimes are on the rise and that the legislation was a chance to “collectively make a strong unequivocal statement.”

After the vote, Scott said in a statement that the Senate had “sent a strong signal that this nation will not stand for the hate and violence spread by those with evil in their hearts.”

Why it took a century to pass an anti-lynching law

The NAACP says lynching emerged in the late 19th century as a “popular way of resolving some of the anger that whites had in relation to free blacks.” About 3,450 black people were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968, accounting for 73 percent of the total number of people lynched.

Only five states had no lynchings during that period, according to the NAACP.

The Senate bill defines someone guilty of lynching as “willfully, acting as part of any collection of people, assembled for the purpose and with the intention of . . . [causing] death to any person.” The crime could be punished by a sentence of up to life in prison.

Seven presidents petitioned Congress to end lynching between 1890 and 1952, the bill said.

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