Updated Mar 7, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Senate sends anti-lynching bill to Biden's desk in historic first

Photo of a memorial that shows flowers, photos and signs, one of which says "Remember Emmett Till"

A memorial to Emmett Till, located in front of a commemorative plaque at a park in Manhattan Beach, Calif., on July 29, 2020. Photo: Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Senate voted by unanimous consent on Monday to pass anti-lynching legislation that would designate lynching as a federal hate crime for the first time in U.S. history.

The big picture: Congress had previously failed to pass anti-lynching legislation despite over 200 attempts since 1918. Scholars have written about how lynchings were used as a tool for racial terror to enforce segregation and keep people of color from power.

Details: Under the bill, a crime would be prosecuted as a lynching when death or serious bodily injury results from a conspiracy to commit a hate crime.

  • A convicted perpetrator would face up to 30 years in prison.
  • The bill, led by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) in the House, is named after the 14-year-old Black boy whose brutal 1955 torture and murder in Mississippi helped spark the civil rights movement.
  • Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who held up a similar bill in 2020, joined Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) in co-sponsoring a proposal to clear up any opposition.

Our thought bubble, via Axios' Russell Contreras: Yes, hates crimes are currently illegal but for decades lynching and murder had been illegal, too, in states and local law enforcement failed to seek charges.

  • By finally making lynching a unique federal crime, the nation is coming to terms with how lynching was used to enforce a racial social order at the risk of violence against people of color.
  • Federal prosecutors will have another tool to use against violators, even if local prosecutors and weak grand juries look the other way.

Don't forget: Jean Pfaelzer’s 2008 book, "Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans" documents from 1848 into the 20th century how lawless white mobs lynched Chinese miners in California in violent acts of ethnic cleansing.

What they're saying: "Lynching is a longstanding and uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy," Rush said in a statement after the bill's passage. "Perpetrators of lynching got away with murder time and time again — in most cases, they were never even brought to trial."

  • Unanimous Senate passage of the bill "sends a clear and emphatic message that our nation will no longer ignore this shameful chapter of our history and that the full force of the U.S. federal government will always be brought to bear against those who commit this heinous act."
  • "The first anti-lynching legislation was introduced a century ago," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said from the floor on Monday. "That it took so long is a stain — a bitter stain — on America."
  • "While this will not erase the horrific injustices ... it is still an important step forward as we continue the work of confronting our nation’s past in pursuit of a brighter, more just future."

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from Rush and Schumer and further context.

Go deeper