The ‘‘Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act"

United States Anti-Lynching Legislation 120 Years In The Making

Thursday, February 27, 2020

After more than 120 years, the United States Congress stands poised to pass legislation that would make lynching a federal hate crime. The recent version that passed through the house is the ‘‘Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act’’, which is named after the 14 year old black teen who was brutally murdered near the Mississippi delta town of Money for allegedly whistling at a white woman outside Bryant’s Grocery. Simultaneously, on last year the Senate passed the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act. A conference committee will now have to reconcile both versions.

The horrors of the inhumane practice of lynching has been documented by many. Amongst these are: the Tuskegee Institute; Chicago publications Defender and Tribune; Ida B. Wells-Barnett in A Red Record (1895); numerous authors and social-scientists; and most recently the Equal Justice Initiative, who in their report Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror (2015), estimate that nearly 4000 lynchings occurred in the American South between the end of the Civil War and World War II.

It is also worthy to mention that the first anti-lynching bill in U.S. history was introduced by George H.White (R-N.C.) on January 20th, 1900. The bill noted that of the 166 lynchings recorded in America between (1898-99), 156 of these were black in nature, and called for “the protection of all citizens” by granting the federal government the authority to investigate, try and convict all guilty parties of “mob violence” under the grounds of treason. Further, Congressman White, who served in the 55th and 56th U.S. Congresses (1897-1901), held the distinction of being the nation's sole black representative during this time, and the last from the South to serve in Congress until the early 1970's. 

White had not been alone in denouncing the evils of lynching and mob violence. Samuel McElwee also decried the practice in a speech to the Tennessee legislature in 1887 when he exclaimed, “Great God, when will this nation treat the negro as an American citizen, whether he be in Maine, among her tall pines, or in the south, where the magnolia blossoms grow?” Other civil rights groups that were “committed and dedicated” to the permanent eradicaion of lynching include: the Niagara Movement, National Afro-American League (Council), National Association of Colored Women Clubs, Commission on Interracial Cooperation, and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.

Due to civil disturbances and mob violence that occurred in areas such as Memphis, Tennessee (1866), Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), and Springfield, Illinois (1908), a grand convening of a National Negro Convention was called which formed a “Committee” to address pressing societal issues on May 31st, 1909 in New York. This broad, multi-ethnic, and diverse group established a platform deeply rooted in workers rights, voting rights, women's rights, civil rights, and universal human rights, and by February 12th, 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was officially formed. One of the earliest initiatives of the organization was the great “Silent Protest March '' of 1917 that occurred in New York City, which was in part a response to the East Saint Louis riot.

The NAACP and it's field secretary James Weldon Johnson would embark upon a “Thirty-Year” campaign against lynching which involved the investigating, recording, and documenting of  incidents of mob violence by individuals such as Walter F. White and Elisabeth Freeman; through the purchasing of newspaper advertisements that denounced the evils of lynching; advocating for  federal interaction in the form of legislation; and by unfurling a giant banner outside it's New York headquarters which alerted the public each time a lynching or mob violence related incident occurred. Johnson would cite cases such as the Jim McIlherron incident (1918) in Estill Springs, Tn. as a reason that federal intervention to ban lynching was needed.

Numerous attempts aimed at achieving this objective would stall. Rep. Leonidas Dyer (Dyer Bill) proposed an anti-lynching bill in 1918, whch was passed by the House of  Representatives but met a fillibuster in the Senate. By 1935, a new anti-lynching bill would be debated in Congress, in part as a response to occurrences like the Claude Neal incident (1937). The Costigan-Wagner Bill (1935-37) was again met by intense Southern opposition, despite the House twice (1937,'40) passing measures introduced by Joseph A. Gavagan (D-N.Y.).  In 2005, the U.S. Senate expressed it's "deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets" for failing to pass anti-lynching legislation.

For more than a century, crusaders have rallied against the immoral sin that is lynching. Some have framed them as racial terror while others have bluntly asserted that they were spectacles. We cannot and should not relegate the past into relative obscurity because scores of generations have been terrorized, traumatized and victimized because of these atrocities. What we all can do is ensure that we chart a course that aspires to that which we can be, to bind up the nation's wounds, to speak out against injustice, to build up and plant atop fertile ground a more beloved community. This important piece of legislation is one step towards achieving that inevitable triumph. 

Respectfully, Eric Atkins


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