Chairman Nadler Statement for the Markup of H.R. 35, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act
Washington, D.C. –Today, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening statement for the markup of H.R. 35, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act:
“H.R. 35, the ‘Emmett Till Antilynching Act,’ is long-overdue legislation that would explicitly designate lynching as a hate crime under federal law.
“The term ‘lynching’ has most often been used to characterize premeditated extrajudicial executions by a mob in order to punish an alleged transgressor or to strike fear among a targeted group. Throughout history, lynching has been employed as an extreme form of informal group social control, and has often been conducted with the display of a public spectacle for maximum intimidation.
“H.R. 35 is named in honor of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American youth from Chicago who was lynched while visiting an uncle in Mississippi in 1955 in particularly gruesome fashion for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
“Though lynching touched all races and religions and occurred in all states in the contiguous United States, the practice was predominant in the South, and 4 out of 5 victims were black. During the period between the Civil War and World War II, thousands of African Americans were lynched in the United States. In 1892, the Tuskegee Institute began to record statistics of lynchings and reported that 4,742 reported incidents had taken place by 1968, of which 3,445 of the victims were African Americans. Through additional research, the Equal Justice Initiative, or EJI, documented 4075 lynchings of African Americans in 12 Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950.
“EIJ estimates that lynchings peaked somewhere between 1880 and 1940, in a shameful chapter in American history. These violent incidents profoundly impacted race relations and shaped the geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African American communities in ways that are still evident today and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials.
“The antilynching movement set the stage for the creation of the civil rights movement that we recognize today. African Americans mobilized their own efforts to combat the terror of lynching and the threat of racial violence through grassroots activism and the founding of integrated social justice organizations.
“The work of the NAACP was especially pivotal in awakening the nation to the urgency of combatting lynching. In 1921, the NAACP also began actively endorsing legislation to make lynching a federal crime. Antilynching activists, such as journalist Ida B. Wells, also harnessed the growing power of the African American press to demand national accountability for racial violence.
“The first federal antilynching legislation was introduced in 1900—almost 120 years ago—by Congressman George Henry White, the only African American Member of Congress at that time. Unfortunately, neither his bill, nor any other antilynching bills that were introduced in the decades that followed managed to pass Congress.
“Although antilynching legislation passed by a large majority in the House of Representatives in 1922, and was supported by then-President Warren G. Harding, the Southern Democratic bloc in the Senate prevented it from coming to a vote in 1922, as well as similar legislation in 1923, and 1924, claiming that it would be unconstitutional and an infringement upon states’ rights. However, the extensive debate on the bill, in combination with the 1919 NAACP report and the related National Conference on Lynching, moved local and state governments to take lynching more seriously, leading to a dramatic decrease in incidents after 1922.
“The enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was the closest that Congress ever came in the post-Reconstruction era to enacting antilynching legislation.
“Although the civil rights conspiracy statute does not specify the offense of lynching as a federal crime, this section has been used by the Department of Justice to prosecute civil rights-era crimes and hate crimes that were described as lynching in public discourse.
“However, despite the existence of federal criminal enforcement against hate crimes, it remains important to enact federal antilynching legislation given the historical context of these violent incidents. Lynching was a violent tactic of racial subordination closely linked to the deprivation of Freedmen’s post-reconstruction constitutional rights. Moreover, the fear of lynching was a major factor in the Great Migration to the North and changed the demographics of the nation. Politically, the terms of the lynching debate still echo through Congress and influence the debate around social justice policy.
“In his farewell address to Congress, Rep. George Henry White lamented the failure of his Anti-Lynching Bill of 1900 by observing that ‘During the last session of this Congress I took occasion to address myself in detail to this particular measure, but with all my efforts the bill still sweetly sleeps in the room of the committee to which it was referred. The necessity of legislation along this line is daily being demonstrated. The arena of the lyncher no longer is confined to Southern climes, but is stretching its hydra head over all parts of the Union.’
“Today, we act to correct this historical injustice that rests heavily on the conscience of this Committee and this Congress. Accordingly, I thank the Gentleman from Illinois, Mr. Rush, for his leadership on this important issue and his attention to history. I urge my colleagues to support this legislation.”