President Joe Biden has signed legislation to finally define lynching as a federal hate crime.
"Hundreds, hundreds of similar bills have failed to pass," Biden said Tuesday during a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House. "Over the years, several federal hate crime laws were enacted, including one I signed last year to combat COVID-19 hate crimes, but no federal law, no federal law expressly prohibited lynching. None. Until today."
The ceremony was the culmination of more than 200 attempts since the start of the 20th century to enact federal anti-lynching legislation, according to lead House sponsor Rep. Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill.
"The enactment of my bill means that the full weight and power of the United States government can be brought to bear against those who commit this vicious crime," Rush said in a statement. "We will no longer face the question of if a perpetrator of lynching will be brought to justice — with the President’s signature today, we have eliminated that possibility moving forward."
The new law is one of several recent measures named for or honoring Emmett Till, the young Black man from Chicago who was brutally murdered in August 1955, at age 14, while visiting an uncle in Mississippi.
"I was 8 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,’" Rush said in the statement. "That photograph shaped my consciousness as a Black man in America and changed the course of my life."
Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, had insisted on an open casket for her son's funeral. A separate legislative effort to posthumously award a Congressional Gold Medal to Till and Till-Mobley has passed the Senate.
"I feel a sense of joy," Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., told reporters before leaving the Capitol to attend the bill-signing ceremony. "I can hear ancestors exhaling. It's been far too long justice has been delayed and denied."
Booker was the lead Senate sponsor of the bill Biden signed.
Vice President Kamala Harris originally sponsored the legislation when she was representing California in the Senate, leading the effort with Booker and South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott. An earlier version appeared to be nearing enactment in February 2020, but that effort stalled after objection from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that led to a heated exchange on the Senate floor in June of that year.
"It's a stain on the history of our nation since our founding, and in particular, in the century following the Civil War, thousands of people were tortured and murdered by vigilantes," the vice president said during the Rose Garden ceremony. "They were dragged from their homes, they had ropes wrapped around their necks. They were hanged, burned, drowned and dismembered."
"They were acts committed to secure political and social control, but they were not designated crimes by the federal government. Lynching was not considered a crime by the federal government," Harris said.
Ultimately, the bill Biden signed Tuesday represented the product of negotiations that brought on Paul as a cosponsor. Paul had objected to the Democratic-led anti-lynching measure last Congress. He argued that the previous language was overly broad.
"Officially designating lynching a federal crime is a powerful statement. But, when Congress creates new federal crimes, it has a responsibility to ensure that the law is just," Paul wrote in a March 2 opinion piece for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Paul praised Booker for working to address his concerns. The two senators have worked together on several criminal justice overhaul efforts.
"That is exactly what I attempted to do when, over a year ago, I offered an amendment to strengthen an earlier version of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act," Paul wrote. "That version of the bill would have labeled a conspiracy to commit a vast array of different hate crimes, including those unrelated to physical harm to a person — such as defacing a church — a lynching."
The legislation that is now becoming law would define hate crime conspiracies leading to serious injury or deaths as lynchings, subject to federal prison sentences of up to 30 years. The sentencing enhancement is stronger than what had appeared in prior bills.
Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.