S.E. Williams |
After signing the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching legislation on Tuesday effectively making lynching a hate crime in America, President Joe Biden reminded the nation this law has been a long time coming.
The effort began about 150 years ago when a North Carolina Representative named George Henry White — the son of a slave and the only Black lawmaker in Congress at the time–first introduced legislation to make lynching a federal crime.
In the long years since, despite hundreds of subsequent failed attempts to move the bill forward, and the successful passage and enactment of several other hate crime laws–including one signed by the president just last year to combat COVID-19 related hate crimes–federal legislation related to lynching languished and stalled.
Meanwhile, between the years 1877 and 1950 research shows more than 4,400 Black people were murdered by lynching and although many occured in the South, people were lynched in the North as well.
“The failure of Congress to codify federal antilynching legislation — despite more than 200 attempts since 1900 — meant that 99 percent of lynching perpetrators walked free. Today, we take a meaningful step toward correcting this historical injustice. I am immensely proud of this legislation, which will ensure that the full force of the U.S. federal government will always be brought to bear against those who commit monstrous acts of hatred,” said U.S. Representative Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) when the legislation passed the U.S. House of Representatives at the end of February.
“Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone — not everyone belongs in America and not everyone is created equal; terror of systematically undermine hard — hard-fought civil rights; terror not just in the dark of the night but in broad daylight,” the president stressed. Adding, “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. To try and own a business or preach the Gospel. False accusations of murder, arson, and robbery. Simply being Black.”
Biden went on to emphasize how those who attended these barbaric acts of inhumanity largely consisted of crowds of white families who not only gathered to observe but also celebrated the spectacles, even taking pictures of the bodies and mailing them as postcards.
The Murder of Emmett Till
The anti-lynching legislation is named in honor of Emmett Till who Biden reminded the nation was just a child when he was brutally murdered. Till grew up on the South Side of Chicago with his mother, Mamie, and his maternal grandparents. The president shared Till’s story.
In the summer of 1955, Till turned 14-years-old and was looking forward to starting the eighth grade in the fall but that would never come to pass because that summer, young Till headed south to visit his cousins in Mississippi.
“So, Emmett’s mom dropped him off at the train station in Chicago. Her own family fled the Delta decades earlier, so she told him — she told him the unwritten rules he had to follow. Quote, ‘Be very careful how you speak. Say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no ma’am’, and do not hesitate to be — to humble yourself if you have to get down on your knees.’ End of quote.”
Biden continued, “That same speech, that same admonition — too many Black parents today still have to use that admonition. They have to tell their children when it comes to encounters with the law enforcement. You know, and so many other circumstances.”
Tills’ story was the tragic spark that ignited the Civil Rights movement for justice that continues today because within days after he arrived in Mississippi, his mutilated body was found in a river. There was barbed wire wrapped around his neck and attached to a 75-pound cotton gin fan before he was thrown into the river.
Till’s mother had her son’s body returned to Chicago where she insisted on an open casket, declaring, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” America and the world bore witness to the horror.
Biden went on to remind the nation that it was a mere 100 days later that Rosa Parks would be arrested on the bus in Montgomery. Her statue sits in my office. Parks said, “I thought of Emmett Till and I couldn’t go back.” “I thought of Emmett Till and I couldn’t go back,” Biden quoted.
He added how Dr. Martin Luther King often preached about, “the crying voices of little Emmett Till, screaming from the rushes of the Mississippi.”
The legislation is not just about the past
“[The anti-lynching bill] is about our present and our future as well, Biden opined. “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.”
The president acknowledged racial hate is not just an old problem. It is a persistent problem. “I know many of the civil rights leaders here know, and you heard me say it a hundred times: Hate never goes away; it only hides. It hides under the rocks. And given just a little bit of oxygen, it comes roaring back out, screaming. But what stops it is all of us, not a few. All of us have to stop it.”
Biden highlighted the courage of investigative journalist and one of the founders of the NAACP, Ida B. Wells, who exposed the tragic pervasiveness and terror of lynching and how it was used as a tool to intimidate Blacks. Quoting Wells he said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon the wrongs.”