By Chanel Cain
Howard University News Service
President Joe Biden officially signed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act into law today, surrounded by civil rights leaders, descendants of Ida B. Wells and cousins of Till. After more than 100 years of failed efforts, this act formally makes lynching a hate crime punishable for up to 30 years.
“Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone belongs in America and not everyone is created equal,” Biden said while addressing the crowd in the Rose Garden.
The bill is named after the 14-year-old who was killed by two white men after allegedly whistling at a white woman. Till is one of 3,446 Black men, women and children lynched between 1882 and 1968, according to the NAACP.
Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Till’s cousin who witnessed the abduction, was in attendance. Through the work of the Till Institute, Parker and another cousin, Ollie Gordon, Till’s story has been a force for change. The act shows that the years of fighting finally paid off.
“Emmett speaks 60 years later,” Parker said, “He still speaks from the grave. And to name it after him, it shows he didn’t die in vain.”
The men who killed Till in 1955, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were found not guilty by an all-white jury. In 1956, they admitted to the crime in an interview with Look magazine. Carolyn Bryant, the woman who accused Till of making an advance on her, confessed that her statement was in part false in “The Blood of Emmett Till” by Timothy Tyson. None of the three served any prison time.
Recent killings, such as the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, have been labeled as modern-day lynchings, drawing comparisons to Till’s story.
“Our past must not and cannot be forgotten, that the truth must be spoken no matter how difficult it is to speak, and certainly no matter how difficult it is to hear,” said Vice President Kamala Harris.
Variations of this act have reached Congress numerous times, each time being shut down. Ida B. Wells, whose work as an investigative journalist exposed the horrors of lynching during her time, met with President William McKinley in 1898, urging him to make lynching a federal crime.
More than a century later, Michelle Duster, Well’s great-granddaughter, notes the “over 200 attempts to get legislation enacted” as she highlights the efforts of generations of pushback coming to a head.
“We are here today because of the tenacity of the Civil Rights leaders and commitment of members of Congress,” Duster said.
Harris was instrumental to the bill’s trajectory; she sponsored the bill in 2019 along with Sen. Bobby Rush while still serving in the Senate. Rush and Sen. Cory Booker later sponsored the bill in 2021.
During her address, Harris broke script to speak to “the importance of the Black press and … making sure that we have the storytellers always in our community who we will support to tell the truth when no one else is willing to tell it.”
This bill serves as another step forward in addressing the country’s long-standing racial issues, with hopes that the bill will help to finally heal some of the wounds of the past.
“Lynching is not a relic of the past,” Harris said. “Racial acts of terror still occur in our nation. And when they do, we must all have the courage to name them and hold the perpetrators to account.”
Chanel Cain is co-editor of HUNewsService.com.