The measure easily passed by the House is being held up by Sen. Rand Paul.
In the twilight of Black History Month, the House voted overwhelmingly to finally make lynching a federal hate crime. Supporters expected it to swiftly pass the Senate that had unanimously backed similar measures and send it to President Trump’s desk.
But then all action screeched to a halt. As supporters looked to fast-track the uncontroversial measure by unanimous consent, libertarian Sen. Rand Paul put a hold on the bill, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
“Senator Paul is working with the sponsors of the bill to make it stronger,” a Paul spokesman said Tuesday when asked about the hold.
Paul’s office didn’t elaborate on his objections. Sen. Cory Booker, a top supporter of the anti-lynching legislation, told SiriusXM host Joe Madison in early March that an unnamed senator held up the bill because they wanted an amendment “around the language of the federalization of the crime.”
“I don’t think that he [Paul] has clearly articulated his opposition publicly,” Madison said in an interview Tuesday.
In the three months after Paul halted the legislation, a viral pandemic swept the globe and the nation. Violence has wracked America’s cities as protesters take to the streets demanding justice for the death of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of white people.
The effort to tackle lynching has a tortuous history in Washington. Congress has failed to pass anti-lynching legislation 200 times since 1882, when 49 black Americans were lynched. In the past century and a half, racists used it as an instrument of terror more than 4,000 times, according to the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative.
“This has been decades in the making, and it is remarkable that we have gone this long in our country without declaring lynching a federal crime,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “And today’s communities continue to wrestle with racial violence in many forms.”
The latest effort led by the Senate’s three black members—Booker, Kamala Harris, and Tim Scott—seemed destined for passage. Harris introduced the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act on Valentine’s Day in 2019, and it passed the Senate by voice vote. The same bill had passed the Senate in June 2018.
“We have an opportunity, once again, to right this wrong and face the ugly history of lynching in America,” Harris said in a floor speech at the time. “Let’s recall this stain on America’s history. Lynching is an act of terror. It is murder.”
The measure was quickly referred to the House, where it stalled for over a year. Rather than take up the Senate-approved bill, the House opted for Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush’s competing but similar bill titled the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. Rush had introduced the measure a month before Harris did, and it passed the House 410-4 on Feb. 26.
“I wanted to put Emmett’s [imprimatur] on this,” Rush said in a brief interview at the time, referencing the 14-year-old Mississippian who became a civil-rights icon after he was lynched in 1955.
That created some consternation over in the Senate, where Scott noted the title change would create delays.
“To be frank, I think they wanted their fingerprints on it. They want it to be a House bill,” Scott, the lone black Republican in the Senate, told National Journal in February. “So they changed the title and kept every other syllable, sentence, letter in it. … We got it passed twice, now we have to do it again, I think we would have been better off just keeping it as it was and sending it to the president’s desk so we could get it done immediately.”
“I hope that doesn’t disrupt it,” Scott added.
The day after the House vote, supporters were confident the Emmett Till Antilynching Act would pass the Senate, and supporters “hotlined” the bill in hopes of getting unanimous consent for a third time. “How dare any of them object,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said at the time, seated next to Booker, Harris, and Rush. Also present were relatives of Till, Ollie Gordon and her daughter Airickca Gordon-Taylor, the executive director of the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation named in honor of Emmett’s mother.
But the Senate adjourned Feb. 27 without adopting the measure, and Black History Month ended without action to make lynching a federal crime. Gordon-Taylor died weeks later.
“It breaks my heart that she passed not getting to see this bill reach the finish line,” Clarke said. “The fact there may be one man who prevented her from seeing that bill signed into law is very unsettling.”
Talks continued behind the scenes before the Senate went on an extended, pandemic-induced recess. April and May passed without action as Congress grappled with the economic fallout of COVID-19, which forced the closure of the nation. In May, civil-rights activists like Clarke began to point the finger directly at Paul.
“The only conclusion I can draw from Sen. Paul’s sudden opposition to the bill is that he has an issue with the law being named after Emmett Till, which would be utterly shameful to say the least,” Rush said in a statement to National Journal on Tuesday. “In the face of the recent lynchings that have taken the lives of Ahmaud Arbery and others, it defies reason that anyone would be opposed to swiftly enacting this critically needed legislation.”
The push to pass the Emmett Till Antilynching Act gained steam after the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black Georgia man, by two white men who have since been arrested and charged with felony murder and aggravated assault under state law. Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s family, told CNN late last month that the Justice Department was investigating the shooting as a hate crime.
“The failure of three district attorneys in Georgia to bring charges against the two White men who killed Ahmaud Arbery demonstrates more clearly than ever why this law needs to be enacted now,” tweeted Rebecca Kavanagh, a civil-rights attorney.
As Washington and the nation’s cities prepare for another night of protests and violence over the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, lynching is still not designated a hate crime.
“This is a perfect time,” said Madison, a longtime advocate for anti-lynching legislation. “If people … are sincere about what they’re expressing in reference to George Floyd’s murder, Arbery in Georgia … Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and hundreds before them, then there’s no better time, then, to pass this bill.”