83 years after Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit,” the act of lynching has been officially declared a hate crime in the United States. On Monday (Feb. 28) the House passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, although three Republicans voted against the measure. The bill was passed in a 422-3 vote, with Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., Chip Roy, R-Texas, and Andrew S. Clyde, R-Ga., voting against the law. Introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., in the 115th Congress, it passed the House of Representatives for the first time during the 116th Congress—in February 2020—with overwhelming bipartisan support, but was blocked in the Senate.
“Today is a day of enormous consequence for our nation,” expressed Rep. Rush in a statement following the vote. “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. The failure of Congress to codify federal antilynching legislation—despite more than 200 attempts since 1900—meant that 99 percent of lynching perpetrators walked free. Today, we take a meaningful step toward correcting this historical injustice. I am immensely proud of this legislation, which will ensure that the full force of the U.S. federal government will always be brought to bear against those who commit monstrous acts of hatred.”
He continued, “I was eight years old when my mother put the photograph of Emmett Till’s brutalized body that ran in Jet Magazine on our living room coffee table, pointed to it, and said, ‘this is why I brought my boys out of Albany, Georgia.’ That photograph shaped my consciousness as a Black man in America, changed the course of my life, and changed our nation. But modern-day lynchings like the murder of Ahmaud Arbery make abundantly clear that the racist hatred and terror that fueled the lynching of Emmett Till lynching are far too prevalent in America to this day.”
Historically, lynching is defined by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as “violent public acts that white people used to terrorize and control Black people in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in the South.” The murders were often prefaced with an allegation against the victim, granting them a death sentence without due process. In many instances, claims made against the Black victims were found untrue or hyperbolic accounts of innocent acts. Still, some were killed by racist mobs and white supremacists without reason.
According to the organization, from 1882 to 1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the U.S., with the highest number of lynchings during that time period occurring in Mississippi, with 581 recorded. Georgia was second with 531, and Texas was third with 493. It should be noted many historians believe the true number is underreported due to the lack of official records that counted and tracked lynchings. The 1998 killing of James Byrd Jr. in Texas, the 2020 killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and George Floyd in Minnesota, and other tragic deaths across the country are seen as modern-day lynchings.
“We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it,” Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), expressed in the Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy, of Racial Terror report published. “The geographic, political, economic, and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed. Only then can we meaningfully address the contemporary problems that are lynching’s legacy.”
Rush is also the lead sponsor of bipartisan legislation that would award a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley, as well as legislation that would direct the Postmaster General to issue a commemorative postage stamp in honor of Mamie Till-Mobley.