The legislative effort to make lynching a federal hate crime punishable by up to life in prison comes 65 years after 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi, and follows dozens of failed attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation.
Congress has tried for more than a century to pass a bill outlawing the practice, which terrorized mostly African Americans across the country in the 19th and 20th centuries. But such proposals have been repeatedly blocked or ignored.
The House passed the bill by a sweeping 410-4 vote in February but renamed the legislation for Emmett Till—the sole ‘name-change’ amendment that returned the measure back to the Senate. The bill describes lynching as ‘an act willfully done by a collection of people who assemble with the intent to commit violence on another human and then cause that person’s death,’ according to a copy of the bill.
However, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who has a history of slowing down bills, said the legislation was drafted too broadly and could define minor assaults as lynching. Paul went on to say the bill might “conflate lesser crimes with lynching,” and noted that murdering someone because of their race is already a hate crime. Paul further asserted the bill could allow enhanced penalties for altercations that result in only “minor bruising.”
Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) said, “Rand Paul, on the day of George Floyd’s funeral, decided to put a hold on the legislation over a very insignificant issue, and I can’t tell you why. I really don’t actually have the answer to that. All I know is it was a very painful experience for both me and Senator Booker to have to go to the floor on the day of George Floyd’s… on the day of this man’s funeral and go into the United States Senate, and for me, as only the second black woman ever elected to the United States Senate. And we’re still fighting over whether lynching is a federal crime?! So, it was hurtful, it was insulting.”
As Congress prepares to wade into a contentious debate over legislation to address police brutality and systemic racial bias, a long-simmering dispute in the Senate over this far less controversial bill that would for the first time to explicitly make lynching a federal crime continues to be held up by a single obstructionist Senator.
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