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Bill to make lynching a federal crime clears Senate for the first time

After a century and nearly 250 attempts, Congress is on the verge of making lynching a federal crime.

Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are just two prominent black lawmakers that might throw their hats into the presidential ring in 2020. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are just two prominent black lawmakers that might throw their hats into the presidential ring in 2020. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It’s nearly 2019, and lynching is still not a federal crime in the United States.

Congress has tried — and failed — to change that almost 250 times over the past century.

But the long-pursued effort to make lynching a federal hate crime has now cleared the Senate for the first time in history, after the latest attempt was unanimously approved on Wednesday.

Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Tim Scott (R-SC) introduced the bill, which was co-sponsored by 35 other senators, in July, and it gained unanimous approval from the Judiciary Committee in October.

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“I want to thank our colleagues for this incredibly important act of bipartisanship in the United States Congress,” said Harris shortly after the bill passed the Senate.

Booker thanked colleagues for making the “historic moment” possible.

There were 4,745 lynchings in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968, according to the Tuskegee Institute, most of them targeting African-Americans in the Deep South.  But the violent murders haven’t been entirely confined to the previous century.

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Melissa McKinnies, a prominent Black activist in Ferguson, Missouri, believes her 24-year-old son — found hanging from a tree in her backyard in October — was lynched in October, though police are reportedly investigating Danye Jones’ death as a suicide.

ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser has detailed how former Sen. Richard Russell — a Georgia Democrat and segregationist whose name adorns one of the three Senate office buildings, despite his proclamation that he was “willing to go as far and make as great a sacrifice to preserve and ensure white supremacy” — “twice filibustered federal bans on lynching, the second time joining a 6-week-long talk-a-thon to keep the bill from receiving a vote.”

The Senate passed a resolution formally apologizing to lynching victims in 2005, but said federal legislation against lynching remained “wholly necessary and appropriate” at the time.

The bill that senators approved on Wednesday would also need to pass the House before it could be signed into law by President Donald Trump.

In an unfortunate yet poetic coincidence, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) — who cracked a joke about lynchings at a campaign event before being narrowly re-elected last month — was presiding over the Senate during the vote to make lynching a federal crime.