By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
This week marked a historical moment. After more than 100 years of trying and even more attempts, lynching is finally considered a hate crime.
President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, March 30. Under this law, individuals who commit a hate crime that results in injury or death could face up to 30 years in jail.
The act is named for Emmett Till, a young Black teenager who was brutally murdered in 1955. His death is considered one the leading forces behind the Civil Right Movement.
During his remarks, Biden thanked Vice President Kamala Harris, who worked on the bill while in the Senate, as well as Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Tim Scott. He expressed his thanks to the Till Family and the family of Ida B. Wells for never giving up.
“Over the years, several federal hate crime bills were enacted,” Biden said. “Including one I signed last year to combat COVID-19 hate crimes. But no federal law expressly prohibited lynching…until today.”
Biden talked about the work of Bryan Stevenson, who helped build the National Memorial for Peace and Justice located in Montgomery. Stevenson researched the history of lynching and found that more than 4,400 Black people were victims of lynching between 1877 and 1950.
“Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone belongs in America and not everyone is created equal,” Biden said. “Innocent men, women and children hung by nooses from trees. Bodies burned and drowned and castrated.”
He continued, “Their crimes? Trying to vote. Trying to go to school. To try and own a business or preach the gospel. False accusations of murder, arson and robbery. Simply being Black.”
Biden noted that racial hate continues to this day.
“It’s a persistent problem,” he said. “Hate never goes away; it only hides…But what stops it is all of us, not a few. All of us have to stop it.”
Among those in attendance was Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells. Duster recalled how her great-grandmother once said that the country’s greatest crime was lynching.
Wells, who was born into slavery, became one of the most prominent investigative journalists and Civil Rights activists. During her career, Wells wrote articles, gave speeches, collected data and more.
“Through her writings and speaking she exposed uncomfortable truths that upset the status quo,” Duster said. “Truths 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.”
For daring to speak the truth, Wells was exiled from the South and her printing press was ruined. But she continued to speak out.
“We finally stand here today, generations later to witness this historic moment of President Biden signing the Emmett Till Antilynching Bill into law,” Duster said. “We are here today because of the tenacity of the Civil Rights leaders and the commitment of members of Congress.”
Harris, who worked alongside Booker and Scott during her time in the Senate, also spoke during the press conference. Lynching is a stain on the history of the nation, she said, lynchings were motivated by racism and designed to cause terror.
Harris talked about the many attempts to introduce anti-lynching legislation including after the murders of Mary Turner in 1918, Till in 1955, James Byrd Jr. in 1998 and James Craig Anderson in 2011.
And while it continuously failed to pass, leaders remained committed to ensuring that the crime was recognized for what it was.
“Again and again, anti-lynching was reintroduced in the United States Congress by leaders who understood our past must not and cannot not be forgotten,” Harris said. “Leaders who understood that the victims of lynching and their families and all of our society deserve that we recognize the crimes and injustice of what was occurring.”
The individuals who were murdered by lynching were business owners, teachers and activists, Harris said, they were working to build a better America.
“Today, as we recognize them, as we recognize our history, let us also be here gathered to recommit ourselves to that unfinished business, as well; to continuing to fight for freedom, for opportunity, and justice for all,” Harris said.