This bill — the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018 — would make lynching a federal crime automatically warranting an enhanced sentence under existing federal hate crime statutes. It would make lynching punishable by a sentence of up to life in prison. This bill wouldn’t preclude murder charges, which can already be brought under existing law.
- Not enactedThe President has not signed this bill
- The house has not voted
- The senate has not voted
Senate Committee on the JudiciaryIntroducedJune 28th, 2018
- senate Committees
What is it?
In-Depth: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), along with the two other African-American members of the Senate, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC), introduced this bill to make lynching a federal crime warranting an enhanced sentence under existing federal hate crime statutes:
“Lynching is a dark, despicable part of our history, and we must acknowledge that, lest we repeat it. 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.”
When recently asked about anti-lynching legislation, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) expressed support and said that he believed an anti-lynching law was already on the books. In an interview on Sirius XM, Sen. McConnell said, “I thought we did that many years ago. I hadn’t thought about it, I thought that was done back during L.B.J. or some period like that. If we need [an anti-lynching law] at the federal level, I certainly will support it.”
Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and the founder of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a national memorial acknowledging the victims of racial terror lynchings, argues:
“It is never too late for our nation to express our sorrow for the decades of racial terror that traumatized millions in this country. Passing an anti-lynching law is not just about who we were decades ago, it's a statement about who we are now that is relevant, important and timely."
In an NPR interview after the Senate passed a resolution apologizing to lynching victims for its failure to pass anti-lynching legislation, University of New Hampshire African-American History and American Studies professor Harvard Sitkoff argued that the need for federal anti-lynching legislation was negated by the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s:
“[L]ynching as such now has decreased very significantly. In part because of the threat of federal anti-lynching legislation, Southern states began to do much, much more to stop lynching from occurring and to themselves prosecute lynchers when a lynching did occur. To a very large extent, then, a federal anti-lynching law became superfluous.”
There are 29 cosponsors of this bill, including three Republicans, 24 Democrats, and two independents. The NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, and Equal Justice Initiative support this bill. There is a House version of this bill, introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) and 36 members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
Of Note: Lynching is the willful act of murder by a collection of people assembled with the intention of committing an act of violence upon any person. Historically, it’s been associated with racially-motivated crimes, especially in the South. From 1882 to 1968, nearly 5,000 people, over 70% of whom were African-American, were victims of lynching in the U.S. Despite the number of crimes, 99% of those responsible for lynchings escaped prosecution or punishment by state or local officials. While lynching no longer occurs with regularity in the U.S., it’s never been officially made a federal offense. According to a film produced by Ted Koppel, the last documented lynching in the U.S. was of Michael Donald in Mobile, AL in 1981 by two members of the KKK.
Congress has tried — and failed — to enact anti-lynching legislation at least 240 times. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, seven presidents called for an end to lynching, and the House of Representatives passed multiple anti-lynching measures between 1920 and 1940. The Senate, however, repeatedly failed to enact anti-lynching legislation despite repeated requests by civil rights groups, presidents, and the House of Representatives.
In 1918, Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer (R-MO) was the first to introduce an anti-lynching bill. His bill, intended to punish authorities that failed to prevent lynching, was designed to act as a deterrent that’d end the practice. Dyer’s bill ultimately died in the Senate after facing stiff opposition.
The last attempt to pass an anti-lynching bill was in 1965. In 2005, the Senate issued an apology for its past legislative failures. In a bipartisan resolution, 90 out of 100 Senators apologized to lynching victims for the Senate’s repeated failure to enact anti-lynching legislation, and expressed their 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 to all U.S. citizens.
- Sponsoring Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) Press Release
- S.Res.39 - Senate Apology to Victims of Lynching and Their Descendants
- The Columbus Dispatch (Op-Ed In Favor)
- New York Times
- Quartz (Context)
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / madsci)