It took more than 100 years and 200 attempts, but the sick and heinous act of lynching is finally close to being deemed a federal hate crime in this country.
The U.S. House, in a rare bi-partisan act, overwhelmingly passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act on Wednesday, with just four lawmakers opposed to it. The U.S. Senate, led by its three black members, passed similar legislation last year, and all that’s left is President Donald Trump’s signature. He has indicated he will give his blessing.
Recognizing the brutality of lynching is a long time coming and, quite frankly, America should hold its head in shame it was not done sooner.
But now is better than never. I am glad Congress finally found the courage and heart to do the right thing.
Now people who engage in what historically was an act of vigilante justice by whites who wanted to keep African Americans in their place can be charged and convicted for a federal hate crime. Punishment is up to life in prison, a fine or both.
For decades, an unfair justice system meant that people were never charged in lynching, found innocent by compassionate all-white juries or received light sentences. The brutal punishment was often for unproven crimes, such as looking at a white woman or disrespecting a white person.
And while it’s true that lynching is not common in current times, the legislation sends a strong message that as a country we won’t tolerate brutal acts of racism.
“It shows that we, as a nation, know the difference between right and wrong, even if it took us a while to get there,” said Will Schwarz, president of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, Inc. “It at last criminalizes the most virulent weapon of white supremacy. It’s a long overdue admission that black Americans have been the targets of a terror campaign for hundreds of years.”
Some would say it is better to leave this history in the past. That white Americans today shouldn’t be responsible for the past transgressions of their ancestors. That it makes them uncomfortable to think about and will rile up tensions between the races.
But we don’t whitewash the past just to make people comfortable. You can’t heal from the past if you don’t confront it. America needs to do a better job at looking at itself. We can decry human rights issues in China and women’s right issues in the Middle East but brush aside our own issues with treating certain groups badly.
“It points to some unflattering features of American exceptionalism: denial and arrogance,” Mr. Schwarz said. “We are eager to celebrate our ideals, but reluctant to admit our faults. America has been unwilling to confront our legacy of lynching and its suffocating, corrosive effects. But the passage of this law is a signal that things are beginning to change.”
Lynchings took place not so long ago and the legacy of the killings are felt in the injustices many African Americans experience today — from mass incarceration to economic inequality. Let’s remember the namesake of the legislation was beaten and lynched in 1955, after supposedly whistling at a white woman. There’s plenty of people still alive who can remember that day.
Government officials often sanctioned, and even participated in lynchings. Therefore, the government has an obligation to play a role in reconciling the past.
In Maryland it is believed that at least 44 men were lynched between 1865 and 1933. That doesn’t count slaves who killed their “property” at will with no repercussions. These acts were sometimes attended by crowds of people who came to see the show.
And the past is not always left in the past. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could see more lynchings take place again. Just look at the comeback of white nationalist rallies.
As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “We cannot deny that racism, bigotry and hate still exist in America."
We hope the legislation brings more interest in the history of lynching, an issue that is being explored across the country, including at a memorial in Alabama. Maryland recently created the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission to chronicle and spark conversations about the killings in our state.
We can’t erase the past. But we can acknowledge it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Andrea K. McDaniels is The Sun’s deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Please send her ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.