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The U.S. Finally Made Lynching a Federal Crime

The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act was unanimously approved in the Senate

This photo shows part of the display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial to honor thousands of African-Americans killed in lynchings. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
smithsonian.com

In a legislative victory 100 years in the making, the Senate unanimously approved a bill on Wednesday that declares lynching a federal crime in the United States.

The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act was a bipartisan effort introduced earlier this year by three African-American Senators: California Democratic Senator Kamala Harris, New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker and South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott. The bill, according to CNN’s Eli Watkins, deems lynching—or mob killings that take place without legal authority—as “the ultimate expression of racism in the United States,” and adds lynching to the list of federal hate crimes.

Though the practice existed during the era of slavery in the United States, lynchings proliferated in the wake of the Civil War, when African-Americans began to establish businesses, build towns and even run for public office. “Many whites … felt threatened by this rise in black prominence,” according to PBS. In turn, the article reports, "most victims of lynching were political activists, labor organizers or black men and women who violated white expectations of black deference, and were deemed 'uppity' or 'insolent.'"

Lynchings were largely—though not exclusively—a Southern phenomenon. Between 1877 and 1950, there were 4,075 lynchings of African-Americans in 12 Southern States, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. The new bill states that 99 percent “of all perpetrators of lynching escaped from punishment by state or local officials.”

Back in 1918, Missouri Republican Leonidas C. Dyer first introduced a bill that would make lynching a federal crime. According to the BBC, the bill passed the House but did not to make it through the Senate. Over the next century, more than 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced to Congress, all of which failed. Filibusters were used three times to block the legislation.

“Excerpts from the Congressional Record show some senators argued that such laws would interfere with states’ rights,” Avis Thomas-Lester of the Washington Post reported in 2005, the same year that the Senate passed a resolution apologizing for its failure to enact anti-lynching legislation. “Others, however, delivered impassioned speeches about how lynching helped control what they characterized as a threat to white women and also served to keep the races separate.”

Today lynchings are rare, but their bloody legacy continues to feature in acts of violence against African-Americans. In 2016, as Jaweed Kaleem notes in the Los Angeles Times, four white high school students in Missouri hung a noose around the neck of a black student and “yanked backward.” That same year, a private school in Texas was sued by the family of a 12-year-old black girl, who said that three white classmates had wrapped a rope around her neck and dragged her to the ground. Last year, nooses were found hanging at Smithsonian institutions, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“Lynchings were needless and horrendous acts of violence that were motivated by racism,” Senator Harris said after the bill was passed. “And we must acknowledge that fact, lest we repeat it.”

Senator Booker acknowledged that the bill “will not undo the damage, the terror, and the violence that has been already done, nor will it bring back the lives that have been brutally taken.” But, he added, “it will acknowledge the wrongs in our history. It will honor the memories of those so brutally killed. And it will leave a legacy that future generations can look back on—that on this day, in this time, we did the right thing.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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