After a century of failure, and nearly 200 failed attempts, the House has passed a historic anti-lynching bill that would officially make lynching a federal crime. Lynching was predominately committed by white Americans against blacks in the southern states during the 19th and 20th centuries. While lynching was not invented after the Civil War, in the time period immediately following, there was a large wave of lynchings that did not lose momentum until the dissolution of the first Ku Klux Klan in 1870. These killings once again gained momentum during the 1890s and continued during the next few decades at high levels.
For many southern blacks in the 19th and 20th centuries, lynching was a common threat that instilled fear upon the community. For hundreds of years, it was used as a way to spread terror among the community to broadcast the ideology of white supremacy in all spheres including economic, social and political spheres. White people were threatened by the rising black prominence in society and were scared of the making of biracial children, claiming that black men were sexual predators who wanted integration solely to be with white women.
This effort to maintain white supremacy and keep blacks from voting, establishing businesses and running for office went hand in hand with the Jim Crow laws that ruled the South and was a violent backdrop to what was going on during the time period. Because of poverty, grandfather clauses and the sharecropper system, black Americans had no recourse and were often subjected to the cycle of constantly being endangered, impoverished and without rights.
Thousands of innocent blacks were lynched and the killings were often broadcasted across the fronts of local newspapers with large headlines meant to draw in white readers. These headlines read as “Five White Men Take Negro Into Woods; Kill Him; Had Been Charged with Associating with White Women” and “Negro Is Slain By Texas Posse; Victim’s Heart Removed After His Capture By Armed Men.” Graphic, disturbing photos such as white families posing with corpses and body parts such as genitalia that were often passed around to those who were in attendance or put on public display. These lynchings were often seen as entertainment and families often brought their children to witness, sometimes even attending them after church.
In the South, an estimated two to three African Americans were lynched each week and in Mississippi alone, 500 blacks were lynched, but nationwide, this figure hit 5,000. These lynchings took place because of the rise of black prominence, blacks violating the expectations of black deference and accused rape, however, in times blacks had committed an offense, it was often a petty crime such as theft. Statistics show that only about one-fourth of lynchings from 1880 to 1930 were because of a rape accusation, meaning the vast majority were fabricated.
The mid 20th century murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till shook the country and exposed Americans to the true brutality of the South and the racism that states similar to Mississippi possessed. Till was brutally murdered after he allegedly whistled at a white woman, causing her husband and another man to kidnap and eventually kill the young black teen. Till was beaten to the point of disfigurement, shot and tossed into the river with a fan from a cotton gin attached by barbed wire that was laced to his neck. When the killers who went unconvicted were later interviewed, they bragged about the murder as a form of Southern justice that protected “white womanhood.”
The first anti-lynching bill was introduced in 1918 by the only black member of Congress, North Carolinian George Henry White. This bill was later defeated in committee and no other bill was brought about until Representative Leonidas C. Dyer became outraged by the violence and pushed for a bill of his own. This bill raised a silent support demonstration by blacks who supported this bill and President Warren G. Harding announced his support that would later be passed in the House of Representatives. However, the bill was prevented from coming to a vote three times by the Senate because of filibusters. The reasoning behind the filibusters were because Senators alleged that blacks were responsible for more crime, more babies born out of wedlock and used more welfare which meant that strong measures were needed to “keep them under control” as well as uphold white supremacy.
It would not be until over a century later that the House passed a historic anti-lynching bill on Feb. 26, 2020 that would make lynching a federal hate crime. H.R. 35, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, was approved on a bipartisan 410-to-4 vote after a sometimes emotional debate in the House. Illinois Representative Bobby L. Rush said that the bill will “send a strong message that violence, and race-based violence in violence in particular, has no place in American society.” The 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville was also cited by representatives who strongly supported the passing of the bill.
While the Act has passed the House, it must still merge with the Senate’s version that was passed in 2018 and President Trump before it can be made into a law. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the Act will be made into law, no matter how emotional and brutal lynching has been in America’s past and with the rise of hate crimes in recent years. The law would make lynching imprisonable for up to ten years and would make lynching a federal crime, tremendously upping the punishment for those who would offend. The passing of the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act would be a starting point to punish those who commit brutal hate crimes as 99 percent of lynching perpetrators escaped punishment for their actions. While lynching is not as apparent today as it was then, this Act will acknowledge the history and the efforts that should have been done a hundred years ago. It is a much needed step to move on the brutal, racist history blacks were subjected to, as well as dissuading those who may want to conduct a lynching of their own.