Sen. Kamala Harris. (photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Congress’s three African-American senators introduced a bipartisan bill Friday to make lynching a federal crime.
Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Tim Scott, R-S.C., drafted the bipartisan legislation, which defines the crime as “the willful act of murder by a collection of people assembled with the intention of committing an act of violence upon any person.” It also classifies lynching as a hate crime that would warrant enhanced sentences.
“It’s a travesty that despite repeated attempts to do so, Congress still hasn’t put anti-lynching legislation on the books,” Booker said in a 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.”
The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018 notes that during the first half of the 20th century nearly 200 attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation failed to gain support from the Senate despite urging from seven sitting presidents.
It also cites statistics supported by research compiled by Tuskegee University, that more than 4,700 people were lynched between the years 1882 and 1968. About three-quarters of the victims were African-American. And according to the bill, “99 percent of all perpetrators of lynching escaped from punishment by state or local officials.”
“Lynching is a dark, despicable part of our history, and we must acknowledge that, lest we repeat it,” Harris said in the statement about the bill on Friday.
Scott agreed the measure is “certainly well past due” adding that, “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.”
The bill needs the support of 60 senators in order to pass. So far, Patty Murray, D-Wash., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., are among more than a dozen senators who introduced the legislation.
No Republicans have backed the bill.
Historically it was Southern Democrats who presented the strongest opposition to a law that would allow federal prosecution of lynchers if the states failed to take any action against them — which happened in nearly all cases.
As Harvard Sitkoff, professor emeritus of history at the University of New Hampshire told NPR in 2005, Southern senators argued it was a state’s right constitutional matter, as murder, including lynching, was a state crime that should remain out of the domain of the federal justice system.
They successfully blocked bills through filibusters or the mere threat of filibuster “particularly in the midst of the Great Depression…when it was important to pass other legislation,” Sitkoff said.
In 2005 the Senate took up a rare resolution expressing remorse for never approving a law against lynching.
The non-binding resolution was a belated effort to convey “the deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity and the constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States.”