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Biden signs bill codifying lynching as a federal crime

The legislation comes after more than a century of failed attempts to make lynching a crime under federal law

More than 100 years after Congress first tried to criminalize lynching, President Joe Biden signed legislation Tuesday making lynching a federal hate crime.

Named for Emmitt Till, the 14-year-old Black boy whose brutal murder by a group of white men in 1955 catalyzed support for the civil rights movement, the Emmitt Till Antilynching Act marks a pivotal moment in the fight against racist violence.

Congress first introduced anti-lynching legislation in 1900 and previously failed more than 200 times to make it a federal crime. An earlier version of the bill made it through the House in 2020 but failed to make it out of the Senate.

Earlier this month, the bill was passed with unanimous support in the Senate.

The bill defines a lynching as a hate crime that leads to an injury or death and levies a penalty of up to 30 years in prison, in addition to any other sentences a person may face for other charges.

Biden signed the bill alongside the families of Emmitt Till and journalist Ida B. Wells, who spent her career advocating for federal anti-lynching legislation.

“Thank you for never giving up,” Biden said, speaking directly to the families.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who sponsored the bill back when she was a Senator, emphasized that, after hundreds of failed attempts, the legislation was a long time coming for Congress.

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“It failed again and again. And again and again, anti-lynching legislation was reintroduced in the United States Congress by leaders who well understand that our past must not and cannot be forgotten. That the truth must be spoken no matter how difficult it is to speak and certainly no matter how difficult it is to hear. Leaders who understood what the victims of lynching and their families and all of our society deserve, that we must recognize the crimes and the injustice of what was occurring and that the people of our nation deserve the protection of a federal law,” Harris said.

Lynchings and white mob violence have a longstanding history in the U.S., with the Equal Justice Initiative reporting that approximately 4,400 Black people were lynched from 1877 to 1950.

“In broad daylight, innocent men, women and children hung by nooses from trees, bodies burned and drowned and castrated. Their crimes? Trying to vote. Trying to go to school. Trying to own a business or preach the gospel,” Biden said.

Biden acknowledged racial violence in America is not a relic of a bygone era, referencing the 2017 attack by a white supremacist on a crowd of anti-racist protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man killed by three white men who were later convicted for his murder as well as federal hate crimes, 

“The law is not just about the past, it’s about the present and our future as well, from the bullets in the back of Ahmaud Arbery to countless other acts of violence, countless victims known and unknown. The same racial hatred that drove the mob to hang a noose brought that mob carrying torches out of the fields of Charlottesville just a few years ago,” Biden said.

Representative Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois and sponsor of the legislation, heralded its passage earlier this month. Set to retire after 15 terms in Congress, the legislation’s passage marks a pivotal moment at the end of Rush’s career which has focused heavily on civil rights.

“Lynching is a longstanding and uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy,” Rush, a Democrat said in a statement regarding the Senate vote earlier this month. “Perpetrators of lynching got away with murder time and time again — in most cases, they were never even brought to trial. Legislation to make lynching a federal crime and prevent racist killers from evading justice was introduced more than 200 times, but never once passed into law.

Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey and co-sponsor of the bill, celebrated the legislation’s path to Biden’s desk.

“The time is past due to reckon with this dark chapter in our history and I’m proud of the bipartisan support to pass this important piece of legislation,” Booker said in a tweet when the Senate passed the bill earlier this month.

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