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Lynching is now a federal hate crime after a century of blocked efforts

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JUNE 13: A woman holds a sign in honor of Emmett Till during a protest on June 13, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Protests erupted across the nation after George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25th. (Photo by Natasha Moustache/Getty Images)
A woman holds a sign in honor of Emmett Till during a protest on June 13, 2020, in Chicago. Protests erupted across the U.S. after George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020.

After multiple failed attempts across twelve decades, there is now a federal law that designates lynching as a hate crime. In a Tuesday ceremony at the White House, President Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law.

"Racial hate isn't an old problem. It's a persistent problem," Biden said. "Hate never goes away, it only hides under the rocks. If it gets a little bit of oxygen, it comes roaring back out, screaming. What stops it? All of us."

Under the legislation, perpetrators can receive up to 30 years in prison when a conspiracy to commit a hate crime results in death or serious bodily injury.

Vice President Kamala Harris said that lynching is "not a relic of the past."

"Racial acts of terror still occur in our nation. And when they do, we must all have the courage to name them and hold the perpetrators to account," she said.

The measure is named for Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was abducted, tortured and killed in 1955 after the Black teenager was accused of whistling at and grabbing Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, while visiting relatives in Mississippi. Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant's husband, and J.W. Milam, Roy Bryant's half brother, were tried for Emmett's murder and were quickly acquitted by an all-white jury.

The men later admitted in a magazine interview to murdering Emmett. Carolyn Bryant told an historian 50 years after the crime that Emmett had never put his hands on her.

Rev. Wheeler Parker, the last living relative of Emmett's to witness his abduction, was at the signing ceremony.

"Now, people can no longer get away with things that they got away with in the past," Wheeler told NBC News. He said the law "gives power to the people who are seeking justice and trying to do the right thing."

Passage of the bill marks a career-defining achievement for Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush, a sponsor of the legislation. He announced in January that he'll retire at the end of this Congress after three decades in office and a previous career as a civil rights activist.

Rush said he vividly remembers being a young boy in the 1950s and his mother gathering him and his three siblings around the dinner table and showing them the issue of Jet magazine that covered the Emmett's lynching.

"And she pointed to that grotesque image of Emmett Till in the casket and she said 'That's why I brought my boys out of Georgia.' And I'll never forget that," he said.

There were more than 4,000 racial terror lynchings in the United States between 1877 and 1950, according to a comprehensive report by the Equal Justice Initiative. The attacks overwhelmingly targeted Black people.

The first federal legislation aimed at ending the attackswas introduced in 1900 by Rep. George Henry White of North Carolina — then the body's only Black lawmaker. His bill failed to advance out of committee.

More failures followed, including in 1922 and 1937. In 2005, the Senate passed a resolution expressing remorse for failing to pass anti-lynching legislation. Efforts stalled again in 2018 and 2020.

Then, on March 8th, more than 120 years after similar legislation was first introduced, the Senate unanimously passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act.

"After more than 200 failed attempts to outlaw lynching, Congress is finally succeeding in taking the long overdue action by passing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. Hallelujah. It's long overdue," said Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

The bill passed the House of Representatives in February. Republican representatives Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, and Chip Roy of Texas were the only members to vote against the legislation.

Racially motivated murders continue to occur in the United States.

In February, three white men were convicted of violating Ahmaud Arbery's civil rights in 2020 when they chased him down with a pickup truck on a residential street outside Brunswick, Ga., and murdered him.

Rush said the Arbery case would have been a textbook lynching under the new law.

"Lynching has terrorized ordinary Americans, particularly Black Americans, in the past and it's used in a present sense in order to terrorize."

Biden acknowledged other recent hate crimes against Black people, including the Arbery case.

"The law is not just about the past. It's about the present and our future, as well," he said.

NPR's Adrian Florido and Peter Granitz contributed to this report. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.