WASHINGTON – The House on Monday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would make lynching a federal hate crime, moving to formally outlaw a brutal act that has become a symbol of failure by Congress and the country to reckon with the history of racial violence in America.
Passage of the anti-lynching bill, named in honor of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black teenager brutally tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955, came after more than a century of failed attempts. Lawmakers estimated they had tried more than 200 times to pass a measure to explicitly criminalize a type of attack that has long terrorized Black Americans. This bill was approved 422 to 3, and was expected to pass the Senate, where it enjoys broad support.
“The House today has sent a resounding message that our nation is finally reckoning with one of the darkest and most horrific periods of our history, and that we are morally and legally committed to changing course,” said Representative Bobby L. Rush, Democrat of Illinois, who had vowed to see the legislation become law before retiring at the end of his term.
In a statement, Mr. Rush, who was a civil-rights leader and founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, recalled when, as an 8-year-old boy, he first saw a photograph of Emmett’s battered body, an image that he said “shaped my consciousness as a Black man in America, changed the course of my life, and changed our nation. ”
Like other lawmakers who spoke in support of the bill, he invoked Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man shot and killed in Georgia while out for a jog, calling his death a “modern-day lynching” and further evidence that the measure was urgently needed. A week ago, a jury found three white Georgia men guilty of a federal hate crime in connection with Mr. Arbery’s murder.
The measure passed on Monday would categorize lynching as a federal hate crime, carrying a penalty of up to 30 years in prison.
Democrats and Republicans alike hailed the action as historic. Representative Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona and one of the House’s most conservative members, made a point of requesting a recorded vote, saying all members should have their positions memorialized “for posterity, and for all Americans to know and recognize that the United States House of Representatives can come together as yet. ”
“We may disagree on so many things,” said Mr. Biggs, who voted against certifying Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. But the vote, he added, would show “that we can come together unitedly.”
Three Republicans – Representatives Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Chip Roy of Texas – opposed the anti-lynching bill.
The legislation now heads to the Senate, where the chamber formally apologized in 2005 for its failure to act on the issue, including during the Jim Crow era, when Southern senators successfully blocked efforts to take it up.
In 2018, three Black senators – Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey; Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina; and Kamala Harris of California – attempted to resurrect the bid to make lynching a federal hate crime. The legislation passed the Senate in December 2018, just weeks before Congress adjourned.
It surfaced again in the summer of 2020, amid a wave of racial justice protests following the killings of Black men and women by white people, and ignited a fight on the Senate floor after Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, objected to its quick passage , calling it overly broad.
On Monday, Mr. Paul said in a statement he would support the measure, which Mr. Booker and Mr. Scott reintroduced on Monday evening.
“I’m pleased to have worked with Senators Booker and Scott to strengthen the final product and ensure the language of this bill defines lynching as the absolutely heinous crime that it is,” Mr. Paul said.
The House vote came on the final day of Black History Month, when House leaders also tried and failed to pass another bill that would bar racial discrimination based on natural hair and hairstyles, including cornrows, twists and braids. The measure drew bipartisan support but fell short of the two-thirds that would have been needed to push it through under a special process reserved for consensus bills.
That measure, which passed by voice vote in 2020, would assert that “racial and national origin discrimination can and do occur because of longstanding racial and national origin biases and stereotypes associated with hair texture and style.”
Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, Democrat of New Jersey and a champion of the legislation, urged her colleagues to support it, declaring that “our natural hair is as innate a quality of Black people as the presence of melanin in our skin.”
“Nobody should have to sacrifice their time, their money and the health of their hair for the sake of complying with racist standards of professionalism,” she added.
But a majority of Republicans opposed the measure. Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, called it “unnecessary and duplicative,” given existing laws against discrimination.
Representative Lauren Boebert, Republican of Colorado, reading aloud a proxy vote, derisively referred to the legislation as the “bad hair bill.”
House Democrats vowed to bring up the legislation again through the regular process, which would allow it to pass with a simple majority.
It would face a far tougher path in the Senate, where it has no Republican sponsors and where 60 votes are needed to pass most legislation.
Several states have passed similar bills, including in New Jersey after a Black high school wrestler was forced to cut his dreadlocks to compete. On Monday, the Minnesota House passed its own version with a bipartisan vote.