WASHINGTON — Nearly 70 years after 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi by two white men, President Joe Biden signed into law on Tuesday a bill to make lynching a federal hate crime.
“Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone belongs in America,” Biden said at the Rose Garden signing outside the White House.
The bill is named after Till, a Black teenager from Chicago whose murder in 1955 became a catalyst in the civil rights era after his mother demanded an open casket funeral to showcase the brutalization of her son’s body, whose face was unrecognizable.
The men accused of his murder, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were acquitted by an all-white jury.
“Racial hate isn’t an old problem, it’s a persistent problem,” Biden said.
As the president signed the bill, Vice President Kamala Harris and Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, stood on opposite sides of Biden. Wells was an investigative Black journalist who documented lynchings across the United States and was a founding member of the NAACP.
“Through her writing and speaking, she exposed uncomfortable truths that upset the status quo,” Duster said of Wells, adding: “Truth that lynching was being used as an excuse to terrorize the Black community in order to maintain a social and economic hierarchy based on race.”
Biden thanked Duster for continuing her great-grandmother’s work, and her family’s continued efforts to push for lynching to be a federal hate crime.
“She exposed the barbaric nature of lynching as a tool to intimidate and subjugate Black Americans,” Biden said of Wells.
A white woman, Carolyn Bryant, alleged that Till whistled at her. Her husband, Roy Bryant, and his brother, Milam, kidnapped Till from his uncle’s home. They beat him, gouged out one of his eyes, and shot him in the head before wrapping his body in barbed wiring and dumping him in the Tallahatchie River.
Half a dozen Black congressional lawmakers also stood behind Biden as he signed the bill, including House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, Reps. Bobby Rush of Illinois and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, and Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Raphael Warnock of Georgia.
There have been more than 200 attempts to make lynching a federal hate crime, with the first starting in 1900 by Rep. George Henry White, a North Carolina Republican.
More than 6,500 Black Americans were lynched between 1865 and 1950, according to Equal Justice Initiative, which tracks racial violence since the Civil War.
Harris said the thousands of Black Americans who were lynched across the country is a stain on American history.
But Harris also took a moment to commend Black journalists, “and the importance of making sure that we have the storytellers always in our community who we will support to tell the truth when no one else is willing to tell it.”
The bill imposes criminal penalties of up to 30 years in prison for an individual “who conspires to commit a hate crime offense that results in death or serious bodily injury or that includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.”
The chair of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., commended the new law in a statement.
“With the signing of this historic piece of legislation, President Biden today corrected one of the longest standing injustices in our country,” he said. “It is vitally important that we send the strongest possible message that violence of any kind, especially acts motivated by bigotry and hate, will not be tolerated in our society.”
The bill unanimously passed in the Senate, and passed the House with a vote of 422-3. The three House Republicans who voted against the bill are Reps. Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Chip Roy of Texas.