Bill Honoring Emmett Till Will Finally Make Lynching a Federal Hate Crime

FILE - Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., speaks during a news conference about the "Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act" on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 26, 2020. Emmett Till, pictured at right, was a 14-year-old African-American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family's grocery store. Congress has given final approval to legislation that for the first time would make lynching a federal hate crime in the U.S. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

By Patrick Berkery

March 8, 2022

Following more than 200 failed attempts, an anti-lynching bill is finally poised to become law in the US.

Congress gave final approval Monday to the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, legislation that for the first time would make lynching a federal hate crime in the US. 

The bill now goes to President Joe Biden, and he appears to be inclined to sign it into law.

The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act is named for the Black teenager whose brutal killing in Mississippi in 1955 — and his mother’s insistence on an open-casket funeral to show the world what had been done to her child — became a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights era.

All 18 US representatives from Pennsylvania voted in favor of the bill, which passed the House overwhelmingly last week, in a vote of 422-3. Each of Pennsylvania’s nine Democrats in the House co-sponsored the legislation. The three US representatives to vote against it were all Republicans: Chip Roy, of Texas; Thomas Massie, of Kentucky; and Andrew Clyde, of Georgia. 

The House overwhelmingly approved a similar measure in 2020, but it was blocked in the Senate.

The Senate passed the bill unanimously Monday.

The bill’s sponsor, US Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Illinois), said the passage of his bill marked “a day of enormous consequence for our nation.”

“By passing my Emmett Till Antilynching Act, the House has sent a resounding message that our nation is finally reckoning with one of the darkest and most horrific periods of our history, and that we are morally and legally committed to changing course,” Rush said in a written statement.

The Legacy of Emmett Till

The brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 and the acquittal of his killers brought nationwide attention to the racial violence and injustice prevalent in Mississippi. 

Till, a Chicago native, was visiting relatives in Mississippi in August 1955. During a trip to a local grocery store, he was accused of flirting with a married 21-year-old white woman named Carolyn Bryant. Several nights later, Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam, abducted Till from a relative’s home. They beat and mutilated Till before they shot him in the head and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s body was discovered and retrieved from the river three days later.

Till’s body was returned to Chicago where his mother insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket. Thousands attended Till’s funeral, and images of his mutilated, bloated body were published in Black-oriented media outlets across the US. Till’s story and the accompanying images put the spotlight on the lack of Black civil rights in Mississippi, and racism at large in the US. 

In September 1955, an all-white jury found Bryant and Milam not guilty of Till’s murder. Protected against double jeopardy, the two men publicly admitted in a 1956 magazine interview that they had killed Till. 

The Need for the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act

More than 6,500 Americans were lynched between 1865 and 1950, according to a report from the Equal Justice Initiative. Lynchings are broadly defined as willfully causing or attempting to cause bodily injury to another person because of actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin.

Despite more than 200 attempts since 1900, the US has never had a law that designates lynching as a federal hate crime. It is believed that 99% percent of lynching perpetrators have escaped punishment in that time span.

The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act would make it possible to prosecute a crime as a lynching when a hate crime results in death or serious bodily injury. The maximum sentence under the Anti-Lynching Act is 30 years. These charges would be in addition to any other federal criminal charges the perpetrators may face.

The previous version of the legislation set the maximum sentence at 10 years. 

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.


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