One Law Won’t Erase the Brutal History of Lynchings
Please note: this is a gruesome subject. Some sources linked here include graphic imagery.
It’s expected that within the next few days, President Biden will sign the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law. The legislation will make it possible to prosecute a crime as a lynching when a hate crime results in death or serious bodily injury. The maximum sentence under the Anti-Lynching Act will be 30 years, three times the average today (NPR).
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. 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.
• 67 years later, the family of Emmett Till is still urging the State of Mississippi to move the open investigation forward, press charges against Carolyn Bryant Donham, and issue an official apology to the Till Family. Last week, they stated their case and submitted this petition with over 250,000 signatures to spur action. Share their story using the hashtag #JusticeforEmmettTill and sign the petition in support.
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 new report released last week by the Equal Justice Initiative, a 31-year-old legal advocacy group based in Montgomery, Alabama, reported 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.”
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).
In February 2020, Congress began considering the updated anti-lynching legislation about to become law. 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. She is still alive and has never been charged with a crime. Emmett would be 80 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).
We know that the criminal justice system fails to deliver justice. Additional legislation against lynching alone won’t protect Black lives. In the absence of comprehensive legislation that centers the wellbeing of marginalized folks, this Act feels more symbolic than anything else. In some ways, it’s affirming to see this type of violence named for what it is and formally addressed, as it should have been for centuries. But it shouldn’t take this long to have systemic violence recognized for what it is.
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.