Biden signs law making lynching a federal hate crime

The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act became law on Tuesday, a bipartisan step towards acknowledging the history of racial violence in the United States. Amna Nawaz reports on the law's significance and what it took to get here.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act became law today, a bipartisan step toward acknowledging the history of racial violence in the U.S.

    Amna Nawaz has our report on the legislation's significance and what it took to get here. It's part of our ongoing series Race Matters.

  • And a warning:

    This story does contain graphic images that may be disturbing to some viewers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A law more than a century in the making reckoning with one of America's most horrific legacies.

  • President Joe Biden:

    No federal law, no federal law expressly prohibited lynching, none, until today.


  • Amna Nawaz:

    The act declares lynching a federal hate crime, a decision with deep historical resonance and modern-day meaning for the criminal justice system.

  • President Joe Biden:

    Racial hate isn't an old problem. It's a persistent problem, a persistent problem.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lynchings are broadly defined as public murders for alleged and untried crimes, often carried out by white mobs towards Black victims.

    In the aftermath of the Civil War, such killings violent and in public view, replaced slavery as the primary system of racial terror. Between 1882 and 1968, more than 4,000 people, mostly Black men, are estimated to have been lynched.

  • Lonnie Bunch, Secretary, Smithsonian Institution:

    Lynchings were very much a means of social control.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lonnie Bunch is the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and was the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.,

  • Lonnie Bunch:

    This was an attempt to make sure that racial hierarchies weren't challenged, to make sure that economic opportunity wasn't fairly distributed. And, in essence, this was really a way to say that this was a white man's country, not a country that embraced all people.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The law today is named for one lynching victim, 14-year-old Emmett Till. In 1955, until was accused of whistling at a white woman in a grocery store in Money, Mississippi, where he was in town visiting family.

    His brutal kidnapping, torture, and murder laid bare in an open casket funeral put on national display the violent racism of the Jim Crow South. Till's killers, like 99 percent of lynching perpetrators, were never convicted of the crime. His murder galvanized calls for change.

    But the effort in Congress to declare lynching a crime actually preceded till's death. In 1900, George Henry White, who was at the time the only African American member of Congress, introduced the first anti-lynching bill.

    Making his case on the House floor, White said — quote — "I tremble with horror for the future of our nation if mob violence is not stamped out of existence."

    It never got a vote, the first of more than 200 times Congress stalled on the issue. The efforts from the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, met a staunch Southern bloc in the Senate that, for decades, filibustered civil rights legislation.

  • Fmr. Sen. Mary Landrieu  (D-LA):

    There may be no other injustice in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    One hundred and five years later, still no consensus. The Senate in 2005 formally apologized for the crime and for the chamber's inaction. In 2020, the police killing of George Floyd and the resulting groundswell of demands for justice renewed the debate.

    In Minneapolis, a memorial for George Floyd was under way, and, in Washington, a raw fight to pass an anti-lynching law led by the Senate's three Black senators, Tim Scott, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker.

  • Vice President Kamala Harris:

    It should not require a maiming or torture in order for us to recognize a lynching when we see it, and recognize it by federal law.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Just one senator stood in the way, Republican Rand Paul. He argued the bill was too broad.

  • Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY):

    It would be a disgrace for the Congress of the United States to declare that a bruise is lynching, that an abrasion is lynching,

  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ):

    I do not need my colleague the senator from Kentucky to tell me about one lynching in this country.

  • Vice President Kamala Harris:

    To suggest that a lynching would only be a lynching if someone's heart was pulled out and produced and displayed to someone else is ridiculous.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Fast-forward to this year's bill. The definition was revised to — quote — "death or serious bodily injury."

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY):

    Hallelujah. It's long overdue.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This time, everyone agreed, and the Senate moved forward unanimously.

  • Woman:

    The yeas are 422. The nays are 3.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In the House, it was a similarly bipartisan result, though three Republicans opposed, Representatives Thomas Massie, Andrew Clyde, Chip Roy, citing issues with free speech and federal government overreach.

    What do you make of their concerns?

  • Lonnie Bunch:

    I think that you ought to be as broad as you can when it comes to protecting human life, when it comes to being — ensuring that fairness is there for all and that racial violence is not acceptable in this nation.

    But, also, I think it's important because this is really symbolic. It is really an embrace to say that America was wrong.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Today, at the White House, Harris reflected on what it took to get the bill over the finish line.

  • Vice President Kamala Harris:

    Today, we are gathered to do unfinished business, to acknowledge the horror in this part our history, to state unequivocally that lynching is and has always been a hate crime.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    More than recognizing history, the act reshapes federal hate crime standards. It broadens how lynchings are defined, to include any attack intended to kill or seriously injure someone because of their identity. And it sets a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison for those convicted.

  • Protester:

    Whose lives matter?

  • Protesters:

    Black Lives Matter!

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Those standards could apply to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, who, in 2020, was attacked and killed by three white men while on a run in Georgia. His name was written on posters across the country, synonymous with the fight for racial justice.

    All three of Arbery's killers were found guilty of murder and also of committing a hate crime that, under today's law, could be prosecuted as a lynching.

  • Lonnie Bunch:

    Lynching, really, as we know it, still exists.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's a reminder, Bunch says, that the deaths of Arbery and Floyd are bonded to the death of Emmett Till.

  • Lonnie Bunch:

    It symbolizes a recognition of the strength of a mother who, at the worst time in her life, demanded the casket be open so the world see what they did to her son. So I just feel that she's smiling, saying that this death was not in vain.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A moment heavy with the wrongs of the past and hopeful for a more just future.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

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