Today President Joe Biden signed into law a bill that makes lynching a federal hate crime.
The Emmett Till Antilynching Act of 2022 was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and passed on February 28 by a vote of 422-3. A companion bill introduced in the Senate by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R.-S.C.) unanimously passed the Senate on March 7.
“This marks a new day in our country’s continuing struggle to provide equal justice to all citizens,” said EJI director Bryan Stevenson, whose research President Biden cited in his remarks at the bill signing. “This Act is an overdue correction to tragic failures of the past. It is a promise that our nation must never allow bigotry and violence to undermine the fundamental rights of every American to be secure and protected by our government when threatened with lawlessness.”
For nearly a century following the Civil War, mob violence, terrorism, and lynching cast a shadow over this nation. Millions were terrorized by thousands of lynchings that forced nearly six million Black Americans to flee the Deep South during the 20th century. Other disfavored communities were often lawlessly killed by mobs and no one was held accountable.
Lynching and racial terror undermined enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, reinforcing disenfranchisment, Jim Crow laws, and racial hierarchy.
Black people like Anthony Crawford were lynched just for being successful businessmen. “This is why we we must still create economic programs today to help communities of color that have yet to recover from decades of discrimination,” Mr. Stevenson said.
Octavius Catto was lynched in 1871 because he voted and encouraged others to register to vote in Philadelphia. “This is why ensuring voting rights is such a critical priority,” Mr. Stevenson observed. “This is why the right to vote should never be undermined or unnecessarily burdened by restrictive laws.”
Mary Turner was lynched because she wanted law enforcement to hold the people who lynched her husband to be held accountable. “This is why doing everything we can to create trust between law enforcement and communities is so vital to public safety,” Mr. Stevenson noted.
Black Veterans were prime targets of lynching because they proudly and honorably served this country. They returned home and were often attacked because they represented a threat to racial segregation.
“Our nation failed, our courts failed, and Congress failed to intervene when the rule of law was mocked by violent mobs that pulled people out of jails to brutally torture and lynch them on the courthouse lawn,” Mr. Stevenson said.
Throughout the lynching era, as thousands of Black people were killed and countless more were terrorized by racial violence, Congress failed nearly 200 times to muster enough votes to pass anti-lynching legislation.
“It is both a triumph and a tragedy that only now has our government officially outlawed the horror of lynching with this historic act,” Mr. Stevenson said. “This should have happened a century ago. But it’s not too late to commit to a new era in which we value the lives of all Americans and never again tolerate mob violence and lawlessness pretending to be justice.”
Lynching in America
The lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported campaign to enforce racial subordination and segregation. Lynchings were violent and public events that traumatized Black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials.
This was not “frontier justice” carried out by a few marginalized vigilantes or extremists. Instead, many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) for bumping into a white person, or wearing their military uniforms after World War I, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person. People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity.
EJI has documented nearly 6,500 racial terror lynchings in America between 1865 and 1950.
In our 2015 report, Lynching in America, EJI documented 4,500 racial terror lynchings in the period between 1877 and 1950. Our 2020 report, Reconstruction in America, documents nearly 2,000 additional lynchings between 1865 and 1876, raising the total number of documented lynchings to nearly 6,500.
Thousands more were attacked, sexually assaulted, and terrorized by white mobs and individuals who were shielded from arrest and prosecution.
Very few white people were convicted of murder for lynching a Black person in America during this period, and of all lynchings committed after 1900, only 1% resulted in a lyncher being convicted of a criminal offense.
Racially motivated violence and lynchings continued after 1950, often targeting civil rights leaders and Black people whose success challenged white supremacy. EJI’s monument at the Peace and Justice Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama, is inscribed with the names of 24 men, women, and children killed in racially motivated attacks during the 1950s, including well-known individuals such as Emmett Till, for whom the bill is named.
In August 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was visiting family in Sumner County, Mississippi, when he entered Roy Bryant’s country store to buy some bubble gum. Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, was working in the store and spent about one minute alone with Emmett before others heard him whistle at her. (As Vanity Fair reports, he was said to have a lisp and may not have actually whistled.)
Outraged, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, abducted Emmett and tortured him to death. The two men were indicted and tried in September 1955. During the three-day trial, prosecutors presented courageous testimony from Moses Wright, Emmett’s great-uncle who witnessed his abduction, and Willie Reed, an African American sharecropper who overheard Bryant and Milam torturing Emmett.
After deliberating for just over one hour, the all-white, all-male jury announced a not-guilty verdict on September 23, 1955. All but one juror later admitted that they believed Bryant and Milam were guilty of murder, but chose to acquit because the mandatory punishment (life imprisonment or death) seemed too harsh to impose upon white men for killing a Black boy.
Four months after the trial, Bryant and Milam admitted their guilt in a Look magazine article. And in 2007, at age 72, Carolyn Bryant told a researcher that she had lied when she testified at trial that Emmett had grabbed her and verbally threatened her.
Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, defiantly held an open-casket funeral in Chicago, where thousands gazed in horror at his mutilated body. To show the world the fate that had befallen Emmett, Mrs. Bradley also distributed a photograph of his corpse for publication in newspapers and magazines, later explaining that “the whole nation had to bear witness to this.”