The Senate unanimously passed a bill on Monday that criminalizes lynching and make it punishable by up to 30 years in prison. It sailed through the House of Representatives last month, and President Biden is expected to sign it.
While it eased through both chambers of Congress this time with virtually no opposition, the path to passage took more than 100 years and 200 failed attempts.
Under the bill, named the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act after the 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was lynched while visiting family in Mississippi, a crime can be prosecuted as a lynching when a hate crime results in a death or injury, said Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., a longtime sponsor of the legislation.
"Lynching is a longstanding and uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy," Rush said in a statement Monday evening. "Unanimous Senate passage of the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act sends a clear and emphatic message that our nation will no longer ignore this shameful chapter of our history and that the full force of the U.S. federal government will always be brought to bear against those who commit this heinous act."
Unanimous consent in the Senate allows a bill to pass without a roll call, so long as there's no senator present to object.
"Tonight the Senate passed my anti-lynching legislation, taking a necessary and long-overdue step toward a more unified and just America," Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., wrote on Twitter. "After working on this issue for years, I am glad to have partnered with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to finally get this done."
Other co-sponsors of the Senate bill were Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. Paul objected to a similar bill that passed the House in 2020. At the time, he said the measure was too broad.
By Monday night, he was satisfied with the bill's language, "which will ensure that federal law will define lynching as the absolutely heinous crime that it is," he said.
The scale of the crime is staggering: The Equal Justice Initiative documented 4,081 lynchings in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950. The report advocates for the erection of monuments and memorials to lynching victims to begin to "correct our distorted national narrative about this period of racial terror in American history while directly addressing the harms borne by the African American community, particularly survivors who lived through the lynching era."
Congress failed to pass legislation for more than a century. The first anti-lynching legislation was introduced in 1900 by Rep. George Henry White of North Carolina — then the body's only Black lawmaker. His bill failed to advance out of committee. The Senate passed a resolution in 2005 expressing remorse for failing to pass anti-lynching legislation; but Congress never passed a bill out of both chambers before Monday. The effort to pass an anti-lynching bill gained momentum after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
The bill's passage marks a career-defining achievement for Rush, who has represented a Chicago-area district since 1993. He announced in January that he'll retire at the end of this Congress. Before politics, he was a longtime civil rights activist.
On Monday, he said he looked "forward to President Biden signing the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act into law very, very soon."