Earlier this year, the House passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, a bill that would make lynching a federal crime for the first time in American history. This legislation has direct implications for the case of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black jogger in Georgia who was killed by two white men this past February.
The fact that the House passed this bill, after nearly 200 attempts from Congress to consider similar legislation, is significant. It’s a sign that lawmakers intend to acknowledge a history of violence against black Americans and the ongoing prevalence of such attacks.
The Republican-led Senate has yet to approve Rep. Bobby Rush’s (D-IL) legislation, though it did advance a similar measure sponsored by Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Tim Scott (R-SC) called the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act in 2019. While both bills passed with overwhelming majorities, the Senate will still have to consider the House legislation in order for it to become law.
The Emmett Till Antilynching Act is named after Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old who was beaten and shot in Mississippi after he was accused of whistling at and grabbing a white woman in 1955. As P.R. Lockhart previously wrote for Vox, his brutal murder “has served as one of the most prominent examples of the horrors lynching inflicted on black people in the decades after slavery.”
Rush, a longtime civil rights activist who’s represented Illinois’s First Congressional District since 1993, sponsored the legislation. He notes in the bill that at least 4,742 people, predominantly African Americans, were lynched between 1882 and 1968, and 99 percent of perpetrators were not punished by state and local law.
A lynching, as described by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, is “the premeditated, extrajudicial killing by a mob or group of people to instill fear.” Rush’s legislation would also classify it as a conspiracy between two or more people to violate specific tenets of US law, including committing a hate crime.
If passed, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act would affect the handling of Arbery’s killing. There was little investigation into his killing until a video released last week showed two white men — a former police detective and his son — in and near their truck blocking Arbery as he tried to run around them before he was shot. The men have since been arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault. According to Rush, the legislation would categorize Arbery’s killing as a lynching, and enable federal law enforcement to more quickly get involved in the case.
“It was a lynching clear on its face, a modern-day lynching,” said Rush.
Rush spoke with Vox about why he thinks it’s taken Congress more than a century to move legislation like this — and how lawmakers can continue to demand accountability for hate crimes. This interview has been edited and condensed.
What originally prompted you to introduce the Emmett Till Antilynching Act?
Rep. Bobby Rush
I introduced it [in 2018] when I was informed by my friend Rev. Jesse Jackson. He called me and asked me, did I know that there was not a federal law against lynching? I was surprised that there wasn’t one, like most people are.
My staff did the research on it and discovered that, no, there was not a federal law, that there have been attempts beginning almost over 100 years ago, but it always got bogged down in the Senate, and it never passed, and the president never signed a bill, and it never became law.
When Emmett was killed, I remember very clearly ... [my mother] called us into the living room, took a copy of the Jet magazine and put it on the coffee table in front of us, and said to us, “This is why I brought my boys out of the South.” Emmett’s murder was something that was up front and personal with me.
I’m very close to the Emmett Till legacy and the injustice surrounding his death, because those injustices were the catalyst for my involvement in the social justice movement, and my political instincts and consciousness were shaped by the tragedy of Emmett’s death.
Where does the bill stand right now?
Right now it’s in the Judiciary Committee of the Senate. We’ve had some indication from others that President Trump, if it gets through the Senate, will sign it.
Why has it taken so long to get a bill like this passed?
The Southern hold on the Congress, the Southern segregationists ... they had a unique, powerful stranglehold on the Congress. They are embedded in the Republican Party.
Do you think that’s changed?
It’s still the case, even today, even currently, as we speak.
What was your reaction when you saw the reports of Ahmaud Arbery’s death, and how do you perceive the incident in the context of US history?
It’s a continuation. Look, there is not one single, solitary millisecond of me being a black man in America, in the year 2020 — and not just this year, all of my adult life — I’ve been extremely conscious of the fact that but for the grace of God, there go I. I, as a black man in America, know at any moment any time, some racist white person would kill me and try to get away with it resorting to his privileges of being a white person in America. Racism is alive, well, and still taking innocent black lives even in the middle of 2020 America.
The killing of Arbery has been described as a lynching. I was wondering if you could talk about why this term has been used?
[As defined by] the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, lynching exists when there’s a conspiracy between two individuals to violate the Hate Crimes Act. And I believe, according to the news accounts that I’ve seen, this father and this son ... they committed a hate crime act against Ahmaud Arbery, and that would make it a lynching under my bill.
I see it as lynching legally, legislatively, morally, socially, politically, and racially. ... It was a lynching clear on its face, a modern-day lynching.
How would your bill specifically address the killing of Arbery, and would it change the way that it’s being handled right now?
It most definitely would. We would not have to appeal to the good graces of a recalcitrant and hesitant Department of Justice to get involved in the case. This would be automatically a case that the FBI and the Department of Justice would have to undertake because it would supersede state law and make lynching a federal crime, so the apparatus of the federal government would be already in place. Those men, those racists, would have been in jail two months ago.
What can Congress do to ensure accountability in this case prior to this bill getting passed?
We have to always be vigilant and we have to always be outspoken. We have to always know that we cannot give racist murderers any kind of protection; we can’t give them any kind of shade and protection. We want to prosecute them with the full weight of the law, and we want to make sure that justice is served.