Please note: this is a gruesome subject. Some sources linked here include graphic imagery.
On May 1, Jordan Neely was killed in a Manhattan subway car after another rider held him in a chokehold for 15 minutes (New York Times). What was Neely’s, who was Black and unhoused, offense? Being hungry, thirsty, loud, and “fed up.” The unnamed rider who took his life, who is a white Marine veteran, was released without charges. Coverage of the incident paints Neely as “unhinged,” “vagrant,” and “aggressive” and the unnamed rider as a “hero” who stepped in to help in a city plagued by rampant crime. But Neely’s death is not a singular incident—it follows a history of violence and lynching entrenched in how this country operates.
Lynching, by definition, is “to put to death by mob action without legal approval or permission.” Although lynchings have happened to people of all races, they’re commonly done by white people to Black people. These are often public murders occurring in response to an alleged, often fabricated, offense. A noose, or lynch rope, was a common symbol of white supremacy and hatred against Black people. Some lynchings would be done at night in secret for a body to be discovered in the morning. Some were popular public events where people would gather for the occasion, buy souvenirs, and take photos with the victim. Lynchings, unlike executions, don’t have a legal stamp of approval.
Regardless, they would often be permitted or even encouraged by local law enforcement (The Nation). The perpetrators of lynchings were almost never punished. Although initial reports estimate over 4,500 racial terror lynchings in America between 1877 and 1950, a report by the Equal Justice Initiative, a 31-year-old legal advocacy group based in Montgomery, Alabama, found that there were actually 2,000 more. You can read the full report here.
We cannot understand our present moment without recognizing the lasting damage caused by allowing white supremacy and racial hierarchy to prevail during Reconstruction.”Bryan Stevenson, Director of the Equal Justice Initiative
Despite all this, lynchings in America were not considered a federal crime until now. Congress rejected nearly 200 anti-lynching bills during the first half of the 20th century (Washington Post).
Last year, President Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law. The legislation designates lynching as a federal hate crime and penalizes those who commit a hate crime that results in death or serious bodily injury. The maximum sentence under the Act will be 30 years (NPR). In February 2020, Congress began considering the updated anti-lynching legislation. Following the murder of George Floyd and civil unrest, the momentum to pass the bill grew. That same year, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would referr to police chokeholds as “a lynching” (CNN).
The Emmett Till Antilynching Act is named after one of the most notorious lynchings in America. In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. The woman’s husband and brother-in-law abducted, beat, and mutilated Emmett before shooting him in the head and sinking his body in the river. When his body was found and returned to his family, his mother held an open-casket funeral so the world could see how horribly tortured and mutilated his body was — one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement. Read more about his story here. An all-white jury acquitted Emmett Till’s murderers. The woman that accused him, Carolyn Bryant Donham, admitted she made up the allegations that sparked the violence. Prior to her death in April 2023, she had never been charged with a crime. Emmett would be 81 years old if he were still alive today.
Today, countless acts of violence against Black people are considered “modern day lynchings,” like the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased and shot down while jogging by three white men in early 2020. The killers were found guilty of murder and a hate crime (NPR). This would fall under the definition of lynching in the new legislation, as likely would the murder of James Byrd Jr. in 1998 (NPR) and James Craig Anderson in 2011 (BuzzFeed).
Jordan Neely was in crisis, and instead of receiving help, he was perceived as a threat and was murdered.
We know that the criminal justice system fails to deliver justice. Additional legislation against lynching alone won’t protect Black lives. And the Antilynching Act felt more symbolic than anything else, even now, following the death of Emmett Till’s accuser. While it’s affirming to see this type of violence named for what it is and formally addressed, as it should have been for centuries, it shouldn’t have taken this long to have systemic violence recognized for what it is. Still, in the absence of comprehensive legislation that centers the wellbeing of marginalized folks, white supremacy and vigilantism will be the default response to the fallout of failing social safety nets and the criminalization of Black people.
- After 200 years, the government will finally implement anti-lynching legislation which will make lynchings a hate crime.
- The U.S. has a long and horrifying history of allowing lynchings against Black and other marginalized groups to persist.
- The legislation will likely do little to prevent “modern day lynchings” from occuring in the future.