A black lawmaker's anti-lynching bill failed 120 years ago. Now, the House may finally act.
This undated file photo shows Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black Chicago boy, whose body was found in the Tallahatchie River near the Delta community of Money, Miss., Aug. 31, 1955.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — In 1900, 120 years ago this week, the nation’s only black congressman stood on the House floor to read an unprecedented piece of anti-lynching legislation to a roomful of white faces.
Just over a year earlier, the congressman, Rep. George Henry White, R-N.C., had witnessed the bloody Wilmington race riot in which mobs of white supremacists overthrew the city’s multiracial government while killing up to 60 black people with impunity. White had engaged in painstaking research, tracking down every lynching victim he could find, in Wilmington and in every corner of the country over the past two years.
Why wasn’t the federal government doing anything about it, he asked. “I tremble with horror for the future of our nation,” he said, “when I think what must be the inevitable result if mob violence is not stamped out of existence and law once permitted to reign supreme.”
His bill never even made it out of committee.
Now, more than a century later, the House of Representatives may finally finish what White started.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., announced Thursday that the House will vote next week to make lynching a federal hate crime, which Congress failed to do nearly 200 times in the 20th century since White’s bill in 1900. Hoyer said that while the bill is long overdue, “it is never too late to do the right thing and address these gruesome, racially motivated acts of terror that have plagued our nation’s history.”
The bill, called the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, would make lynching, and mob killing generally, punishable up to life in prison. Introduced in the House by Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., it passed the Senate last year, where it was spearheaded by Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Tim Scott, R-S.C.
It says that whoever “willfully, acting as part of any collection of people, assembled for the purpose and with the intention of committing an act of violence upon any person, causes death to any person, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, fined under this title, or both.”
“More than 100 years have passed since Congressman George Henry White introduced the first antilynching legislation,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. “Next week, we will finally take concrete steps to address this dark and shameful chapter in American history by bringing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act to a vote on the House Floor.”
Lawmakers have pitched the bill as a tool to both confront decades of racial terror and to ensure lynchings are never tolerated again.
Between 1882 and 1968, more than 4,700 people were lynched, according to the Tuskegee Institute.
Nearly 2,000 of those occurred after White’s original bill to prosecute lynchings failed.
Amy Kate Bailey, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-author of “Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence,” said that white lawmakers used “states’ rights” as an excuse to refuse to support anti-lynching legislation for decades.
“Frankly,” Bailey told The Washington Post, “that’s what enabled local and state jurisdictions to turn a blind eye to highly racially discriminatory practices, to a campaign of racial terror.”
Back in 1900, Bailey said, White’s decision to force the issue of lynchings on the House floor would have been an “extraordinarily risky” maneuver for the lone black lawmaker.
Just days before unveiling his bill, 3,200 black people signed a petition asking that they be protected under the law from the “barbarous practice of lynching and burning colored men.” And already, white lawmakers thought it was an impossible request.
“There is no power in Congress to prevent or punish crimes committed in the various states,” The Washington Post quoted one congressman as saying in response to the petition in January 1900.
White pressed on. The congressman was particularly disturbed by the lack of apparent concern among his colleagues about the November 1898 Wilmington race riot, in which black people were not only murdered but forced out of the town in a mass exodus by white mobs.
On Feb. 23, 1900, in a moving, extended speech on the House floor, White called them out by name, questioning why some southern Democrats could speak so sensationally about lynchings in their own communities while having no concern for due process of the law or any basic sense of justice for the victims. He read their own words back to them, poking holes in their apparent justifications for murder.
And then he unveiled his bill — which would make mob killings, including lynchings, federal crimes. It said: “Whenever any citizen or citizens of the United States shall be murdered by mob violence in the manner hereinabove described, all parties participating, aiding, and abetting in such murder and lynching shall be guilty of treason against the Government of the United States, and shall be tried for that offense in the United States courts.”
“In concluding these remarks, Mr. Chairman,” he said, I wish to disclaim any intention of harshness or the production of any friction between the races or the sections of this country ... I have simply raised my voice against a growing and, as I regard it, one of the most dangerous evils in our country,” he said. “I have simply raised my voice in behalf of a people who have no one else to speak for them here.”
The chamber erupted in “prolonged applause,” according to a note in a Library of Congress copy of his speech — but White’s bill promptly died in committee.
He did not seek reelection in 1901, after North Carolina passed a measure that disenfranchised thousands of black voters, and another black congressman would not take office for nearly three decades. In a final speech, he urged lawmakers to remember his anti-lynching efforts, saying the “arena of the lyncher no longer is confined to southern climes, but is stretching its hydra head all over parts of the Union.”
Not many listened.
Over the next 50 years, the closest Congress would ever come to passing an anti-lynching bill was in 1922. Much in the way Wilmington stirred White to action, another mass race riot would compel Rep. Leonidas Dyer, R-Mo., to try to pass lynching legislation again. In East St. Louis in 1917, violent white mobs killed at least 39 black men during a labor strike — as white workers’ complaints of black migrants turned into a rampage against them — while nine white people were also killed during the riot.
Dyer’s anti-lynching bill was the first to pass the House, bolstered by support from the nascent NAACP and its new report, “Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918.” Then, the bill was filibustered to death in the Senate.
The Senate formally apologized in 2005 for filibustering anti-lynching bills not once, but three times in the 20th century, all in the name of states’ rights.
“There may be no other injustice in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility,” the resolution said.
Bailey said the legislation the House will vote on Wednesday may be symbolic to a certain extent, but is particularly important to the descendants of lynching victims. People shouldn’t “try to paint this as an issue that is somehow buried in the past,” Bailey said.
“Anyone who wants to suggest that we’re actually beyond a point of racial tensions that could spill over into some sort of violence, I think they’re fooling themselves,” she said. “I think we need a federal protection, particularly given the level of rhetoric that seems to be gaining currency again today.”
If the bill passes on Wednesday, it will head to President Donald Trump’s desk to be signed into law.
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