WASHINGTON — The Senate unanimously approved a bill that would make lynching a federal hate crime, explicitly criminalizing a heinous act that has become a symbol of the country’s history of racial violence.
It was a remarkable moment after more than a century of failed attempts. The bill bears the name of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955. According to the measure, the offense carries a maximum prison sentence of 30 years.
“Hallelujah — it’s far too late,” said New York City Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader who oversaw the passing of the legislation in a sparsely populated chamber Monday night. He added: “That it took so long is a blot, a bitter blot on America.”
With no senators showing up to object, the bill passed the Senate without a formal vote. The measure now goes to President Biden’s desk for his signature, after passing through the House in late February with just three lawmakers against.
“While no legislation will reverse the pain and anguish of those victims, their loved ones and black communities, this legislation is a necessary step America must take to heal from the racial violence that has permeated its history,” Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey and a sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement Monday.
Failure to approve such a measure before this year had become a glaring example of the country’s inadequate response to a crime that has long terrorized black Americans. The NAACP estimated, based on its data, that black victims accounted for 72 percent of the 4,743 lynchings that occurred between 1882 and 1968.
“This is the year, now is the time, we do the right thing,” South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott and a long-time advocate for legislation, said in a passionate speech on the Senate floor on Thursday. Not for Republicans or Democrats, but for Americans who have watched with bewildered eyes and confused hearts as their administrations fail time and again on issues that matter to them. Let this year be the year we put politics aside and make it happen.”
Representative George Henry White of North Carolina first enacted legislation in 1900 to make lynching a hate crime; he was the only black legislator in Congress at the time. The bill has never been put to the House of Representatives for a vote. More than 200 similar bills have been filed in the years since, lawmakers estimate.
In 2005, the Senate formally apologized for not responding to the issue, including when Southern senators blocked similar legislation during the Jim Crow era. More than a decade later, three black senators — Mr. Scott, Mr. Booker and Kamala Harris of California — began a renewed effort to have an anti-lynching measure enacted into law.
As protests against racial justice swept across the country in the summer of 2020 following the murder of black men and women by white police and civilians, the three senators renewed their efforts to pass the measure.
But Senator Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, objected to accelerated passage at the time, saying the legislation was too broad and wouldn’t make it to the Senate. In an op-ed published this month, he described negotiations for a revised version of the legislation, which specifically specifies “death or serious bodily harm” as a result of the crime.
“Our partnership worked because of a deep mutual respect for each other and a shared purpose to rectify historic mistakes without inadvertently creating new victims,” wrote Mr. Paul, broadcasting Mr. Booker.
The passing of the bill with overwhelming bipartisan support, Mr Booker said in his statement, “underlines the importance of meeting this moment, considering the past and finally being able to say we did the right thing.”