Most people in the U.S. probably think of lynching as a thing of the past — a tragic element of the Jim Crow South, but something that's definitively outlawed today. Surprisingly enough, that's not exactly the case — but three black senators are working on an anti-lynching bill, which could finally designate lynching as a federal hate crime.
According to the New York Times, Democratic senators Corey Booker and Kamala Harris, the lead sponsor, have teamed up with Republican Tim Scott to introduce a bill making lynching into a federal hate crime. Based on the language of their anti-lynching bill, being convicted of having committed that crime could give the perpetrator up to life in prison. That conviction would also not preclude a further conviction for murder or any other charges and the sentences that would come with those.
The BBC wrote that over 200 anti-lynching bills have come up in the U.S. Congress since 1918, but none ended up on any president's desk. This latest bill could change things, as it already has the explicit support of the 16 senators who have signed on as co-sponsors. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also indicated that he would support the bill.
"Lynching is a dark, despicable part of our history, and we must acknowledge that, lest we repeat it," Harris said in a statement. “From 1882 to 1986 there have been 200 attempts that have failed to get Congress to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, it’s time for that to change.”
In discussing the bill in an interview on Sirius XM, McConnell expressed the surprise that many people probably felt upon hearing that Congress had never managed to pass a bill against lynching.
“I thought we did that many years ago,” McConnell said. “I hadn’t thought about it, I thought that was done back during L.B.J. or some period like that. If we need one at the federal level, I certainly will support it.”
With McConnell's support and the bipartisan nature of the bill, it seems very likely that it will pass. Among the other senators co-sponsoring it are Independents Bernie Sanders and Angus King, and Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Tim Kaine. Despite McConnell's statement and the fact that one of the senators introducing it is a Republican, NPR reported that no other Republican senators have signed onto the bill.
"This measure is certainly well past due and I am glad to be able to join in efforts that will underscore the severity of this crime,” South Carolina Republican senator Tim Scott said in the statement that Harris' office released. “This piece of legislation sends a message that together, as a nation, we condemn the actions of those that try to divide us with violence and hate.”
According to CNN, about 4,000 African-Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968 — but 99 percent of the people who carried out those crimes were able to avoid criminal charges. 1918 saw the first anti-lynching bill on the floor of the House, but Southern Democrats in the Senate doomed it to failure, CNN wrote.
The Hill reported that the Senate passed legislation officially apologizing to the victims of lynching in 2005, but that those bringing this bill to the table still believe that their legislation is necessary for the nation to keep addressing its dark history.
“It’s a travesty that despite repeated attempts to do so, Congress still hasn’t put anti-lynching legislation on the books,” Senator Booker said in the statement. “This bill will right historical wrongs by acknowledging our country’s stained past and codifying into law our commitment to abolishing this shameful practice.