March 7, 2022 ~After 122 years of failure, a sudden, quiet success. The U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, a law that makes lynching a federal hate crime. The House passed the bill in February by a 410-3 vote. The measure now goes to President Joe Biden for his signature.
The first congressional attempt to pass such a law took place in 1900. Between then and now 200 bills have been introduced in Congress to criminalize lynching but have failed to pass through both houses.
Between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,400 black men, women and children were killed in documented lynchings, primarily in the southern states of the former Confederacy, but also in the North and West. The United States has changed since white mobs used public violence against black people to enforce racial subordination and white supremacy. But the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old, unarmed black jogger, by white men who assumed he was a local burglar, demonstrates how the presumption of black guilt and dangerousness is directly related to this country’s history of racialized terror.
Like many lynching victims of generations past, Arbery was a black man targeted by white men who, though not police, felt empowered to wield weapons, demand answers and then kill him when he did not submit. “[The South’s] police system,” scholar W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1903, “was arranged to deal with Blacks alone, and tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police.”
More than 150 years since Reconstruction, this country continues to rely on narratives that dehumanize people of color suspected of crimes to legitimate their inhumane treatment—whether through state sanctioned racial violence, forced labor during incarceration, or deadly conditions of confinement. White supremacy projects criminality onto black people making even quotidian activities—like traveling by foot through a residential neighborhood or walking to the convenience store for snacks—a deadly risk for black people.
While white mobs proudly posed for photographs beneath hanging black corpses and mailed incriminating evidence as postcards through the U.S. mail, very few white people were convicted of murder for lynching a black person. Of all lynchings committed after 1900, only 1 percent resulted in a lyncher being convicted of any crime.
In her 1892 pamphlet, “Southern Horrors,” investigative journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote that accountability for racial violence “cannot and will not be done unless a healthy public sentiment demands and sustains such action.”
March 7, 1965 – Then-25-year-old activist John Lewis led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama and faced brutal attacks by oncoming state troopers, footage of the violence collectively shocked the nation and galvanized the fight against racial injustice.