For more than seven decades, lynchings in the United States unleashed a wave of racial terrorism intended to frighten and control African Americans after the collapse of slavery. This week, federal legislators made an important step in acknowledging the harms of that decades-long campaign and the federal government’s failure to intervene.
On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously passed the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018, a bill that classifies lynching — defined in the bill as an act that “willfully cause bodily injury to any other person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person” — as a federal hate crime.
The legislation was introduced in June by the Senate’s three black members, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Tim Scott (R-SC). A companion bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) and was sent to committee.
By classifying lynching and attempted lynching as a federal hate crime, the bill enables judges to impose additional sentencing enhancements on top of any other charges when determining the punishment for those convicted of such crimes.
The bill says that “if two or more people are convicted of killing someone because of their ‘actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin,’ they can be sentenced to up to life in prison,” NPR reports. “If the lynching victim experiences ‘bodily harm,’ the perpetrators face no less than 10 years in prison.”
But the bill also calls for legislators to acknowledge the historical impact and lasting harms of lynchings, which often went unaddressed by local and state law enforcement. Indeed, the bill begins with a strong statement declaring lynching as “the ultimate expression of racism in the United States following Reconstruction.”
The bill’s passage was decades in the making, coming more than a century after the first anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress. In the decades since, numerous efforts to pass anti-lynching bills failed, largely due to opposition from Southern states and some congressional legislators, who argued that such a measure was federal overreach that trampled on states’ rights.
“Protection against lynching was the minimum and most basic of Federal responsibilities, and the Senate considered but failed to enact anti-lynching legislation despite repeated requests by civil rights groups, Presidents, and the House of Representatives to do so,” the Senate bill notes.
The 2018 version of the legislation serves a largely symbolic purpose and functions as an apology for Congress’s failure to act as thousands of victims were tortured and killed. The vast majority of them were African Americans, but Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and whites were also victims.
With little time left in the current legislative session, it is unclear if the House will act on its version of the bill and send anything to President Donald Trump’s desk. Sen. Harris has said that she is working to get the House to schedule a vote before the upcoming holiday. If that effort fails, the bill will need to be reintroduced once a new Congress begins work in January.
Even so, the Senate passage — coming in a year that has seen increased attention to ongoing civil rights issues, renewed concerns about the power of white supremacy, and continued efforts to better grapple with America’s history of racism — marks a significant recognition of how racism factored in to the nation’s past and remains in its present. It’s part of a broader reckoning decades in the making.
“For more than a century, and more than 200 attempts, this body has failed,” Booker said on Wednesday. “Today, we have righted that wrong and taken corrective action that recognizes this stain on our country’s history.”
The Senate passage comes after decades of attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation
Efforts to pass anti-lynching legislation date back to 1900, when North Carolina Rep. George H. White, the only black man in Congress at the time, introduced a measure that was defeated in committee. The first serious congressional effort to pass anti-lynching legislation began in 1918, when Rep. Leonidas Dyer, a Missouri Republican, introduced the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which called for the federal government “to prosecute lynch mobs for murder,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Dyer introduced the bill at each subsequent session, and in 1922, the bill passed the House only to be filibustered in the Senate. In 1928, Dyer outlined the constitutional case for his anti-lynching legislation and argued that his bill protected the equal protection rights granted to African Americans under the 14th Amendment. “There has been and is now a two-fold denial of the equal protection of the law resulting from the existence of the lynching evil: the failure to afford protection to the victim, and the failure to prosecute the guilty parties,” Dyer wrote.
After the 1922 filibuster, Dyer’s bill would remain untouched by Congress for years until it was reintroduced in 1930. But as the Great Depression continued, legislators would set the issue aside. Dyer left Congress in 1933, but efforts to pass anti-lynching legislation continued and were repeatedly halted by Southern Democrats, even as groups like the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as no fewer than seven presidents, called for the measure to pass. Until the Senate vote on Wednesday, anti-lynching legislation had failed nearly 200 times.
“Southern white federal officeholders repeatedly blocked anti-lynching legislation over the decades of the early 20th century, asserting that a federal role in thwarting lynching would violate ‘state’s rights,’” Michael Pfeifer, a history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told the Los Angeles Times recently.
As the legislation languished, the lynchings continued. The 2018 bill cites research from Tuskegee University that found some 4,475 lynchings in the US between 1882 and 1968. Most occurred in the South, but lynchings were reported in all but four states.
And, as the Senate’s bill notes, “99 percent of all perpetrators of lynching escaped from punishment.”
In recent years, more information about lynchings has been documented by the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group that provides legal services to the wrongfully convicted and others struggling in the justice system. According to research from the EJI, there were more than 4,000 lynchings in America between 1877 and 1950.
“Enslaved people were promised freedom, and what they got was terrorism. During the era of lynching, black people were promised security, but what they got was humiliation and segregation,” Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, told me earlier this year.
In 2005, Congress issued a resolution apologizing for its inaction. “The Senate failed you and your ancestors and our nation,” then-Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat and one of the main sponsors of the resolution, told an audience of the descendants of lynching victims at the time. A New York Times article from that year noted that the resolution was the first time that Congress had ever formally apologized to African Americans.
The 2018 legislation comes as America grapples with its history of racism
The 2018 legislation introduced by Harris, Booker, and Scott comes amid an ongoing reckoning with America’s history of racism and discrimination. Stories of lynching and its history have played a significant role in this history.
The history of lynching continues to fuel controversies even now, most recently emerging in Mississippi’s Senate race, when incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith faced an intense backlash after joking about attending a “public hanging” in a state that has the highest recorded number of lynchings in the country. Hyde-Smith was still elected, and she was the presiding officer over the vote this week.
As the Washington Post’s Eugene Scott notes, some deaths of African Americans in recent years have been referred to as lynchings. In October, the hanging death of Dayne Jones, the son of a prominent Ferguson, Missouri, activist, fueled accusations that the young man was lynched, though local police have disputed that characterization of the crime.
The recent deaths of several activists involved in the 2014 Ferguson protests after the police shooting of Michael Brown have also fueled speculation of a campaign of targeted killings of black activists reminiscent of what occurred prior to 1968, though no definitive link connecting these deaths has been found.
“For many Americans, how black people — specifically those working to dismantle white supremacy — have been tragically treated throughout history is not forgotten,” Scott explains.
If the bill does go on to become law, it isn’t clear exactly how many people would actually be subjected to the hate crime sentencing enhancements. But the bill’s sponsors say that its passage in the Senate brings Congress one step closer to acknowledging the damage its inaction facilitated decades ago.
“Only by coming to terms with history can the United States effectively champion human rights abroad,” the bill notes. “An apology offered in the spirit of true repentance moves the United States toward reconciliation and may become central to a new understanding, on which improved racial relations can be forged.”
That acknowledgement fits into a larger demand for a racial reckoning in America, a demand that is also seen in calls to remove Confederate monuments and expand teaching about the legacy and impact of slavery. This past April, the Equal Justice Initiative opened the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, to increase understanding of how the harms of slavery continue to manifest in modern times.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice pays special attention to lynching through some 800 suspended steel monuments engraved with the dates of various lynchings and the names of victims. The memorial, the group said, is meant to force the nation to confront and understand its history.
During a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Harris said that she believes the government must also play a role in this reckoning. “We finally have a chance to speak the truth about our past, and make clear that these hateful acts should never happen again without serious, severe, and swift consequence and accountability,” she said.