SAY WHAT? - Over 400 years after trafficking African slaves to the New World and through a century of nearly 200 failed efforts during seven U.S. presidential administrations, Congress has at long last rendered it a hate crime to hang from the limb of a tree until dead the overwhelmingly innocent African-American descendants of those slaves. Named for the 14-year-old black boy savagely murdered 67 years ago for allegedly whistling at a white woman, the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act makes lynching a federal hate crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison. It passed the Senate Monday night by almost-unheard-of unanimous consent, and now goes to Biden to be signed. Not long ago, the grotesquerie of lynching was such a popular crowdpleaser that enterprising capitalists sold postcards of the events: "Token of A Great Day." The Equal Justice Initiative has documented at least 4,081 lynchings in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950; the NAACP,looking even closer to the here and now, reports at least 4,743 lynchings, with almost all black victims, between 1882 and 1968. Still, it's taken over 100 years for America to agree black lives should matter at least enough to stop the grisly carnage.
The first anti-lynching bill was introduced in 1900 by North Caroline's Rep. George Henry White, the body's only Black lawmaker; it failed to get out of committee. In 1918, after St. Louis race riots killed up to 150 Black Americans, GOP (yes) Missouri Rep. Leonidas Dyer tried again; her bill was filibustered in the Senate by ole boys arguing the "good negroes of the South" didn't need such protections. After years of efforts stalled by "states rights" fans, the most recent anti-lynching bill passed the House in 2020 after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery; it was stopped by Rand Paul of Kentucky - 205 lynchings - who nonsensically claimed it could be used against someone causing "minor bruising." Having added the shiny new words “death or serious bodily injury,” black Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Tim Scott introduced the new bill in June. Its passage was hailed by Illinois Rep. and former civil rights activist Bobby Rush for correcting the "abhorrent injustice" of a "uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy" - and to allow perpetrators, including Emmett Till's killers, to "get away with murder time and time again." Hallelujah, said many, and we agree. Still, that's one goddamn long arc of the moral universe, and grisly evidence abounds Cory Booker's "dark chapter in our history" is far from over.
(Abby Zimet has written Common Dream's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. Email: [email protected])