The Senate unanimously passed the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018 on December 20. Introduced in June by the three Black members of the Senate, Kamala Harris, Tim Scott, and Cory Booker, the bill is an important statement about the Senate’s failure to protect African Americans from racial terror.
Lynching in America
After slavery was formally abolished, lynching emerged as a vicious tool of racial control to reestablish white supremacy and suppress Black civil rights.
Many of the names of lynching victims were not recorded and will never be known, but EJI has documented more than 4000 racial terror lynchings across 20 states between 1877 and 1950.
These lynchings were public acts of racial terrorism, intended to instill fear in entire Black communities. Government officials frequently turned a blind eye or condoned mob violence. Many Black people were pulled out of jails or given over to mobs by law enforcement officials who were legally required to protect them. Terror lynchings often included burning and mutilation, sometimes in front of crowds numbering in the thousands.
In response to this racial terror and violence, millions of Black people fled the South and could never return, which deepened the anguish and pain of lynching.
Throughout the lynching era, as thousands of Black people were killed and countless more were terrorized by racial violence, Congress repeatedly failed to muster enough votes to pass any of the anti-lynching statutes proposed.
Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018
“For over a century, members of Congress have attempted to pass some version of a bill that would recognize lynching for what it is: a bias-motivated act of terror,” Senator Booker said in a statement. “Today, we have righted that wrong and taken corrective action that recognizes this stain on our country’s history.”
The bill would add a section titled “lynching” to federal civil rights law, providing that if two or more people kill someone because of that person’s race or religion, they can be sentenced up to life in prison if convicted.
In its introductory language, the bill describes lynching as “the ultimate expression of racism in the United States following Reconstruction.”
Finding that “[o]nly by coming to terms with history can the United States effectively champion human rights abroad,” the bill acknowledges the Senate’s failure to protect African Americans during this era.
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.
A companion bill introduced in the House by Representative Bobby Rush was sent to committee, but the House did not schedule a vote on the bill before Congress adjourned in December. The bill will now need to be reintroduced in the current session in order to become law.