Lynching made federal hate crime after 122 years of effort

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signs H.R. 55, the "Emmett Till Antilynching Act," which designates lynching as a hate crime under federal legislation, during a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

By Rachel Royster | News Editor

The passage of the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act marks the end of a 122-year fight for lynching to be federally deemed a hate crime. The act is now on President Joseph Biden’s desk in hopes of it becoming law.

The act amends a United States Code regarding hate crimes to include lynching. Named after a 14-year-old boy who was lynched in 1955, the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act is one of over 200 bills to attempt to pass legislation banning lynching in the U.S. since 1900.

Dr. Ronald Johnson — Ralph & Bessie Mae Lynn endowed chair of history — said he let out a sigh of relief when he saw the bill had passed, but he said he was disappointed by the lengths that had to be taken in order to have it pass.

“The bill’s passage affirms my belief in the plausibility of change in America,” Johnson said. “We are a people who continue to wrestle with our shortcomings, as we try to live out our national ideals. But it took national public outcry following the horrific videotaped murder of George Floyd by a police officer to move certain politicians to pass an anti-lynching bill named for a teenage lynched nearly seven decades ago.”

Johnson said he believes it took over a century to pass because some political leaders don’t view the value of Black lives in America as equal to that of white Americans.

“The bill, at least symbolically at the federal level, affirms that Black lives have value,” Johnson said. “To make the bill meaningful, all Americans need to value Black lives equally in reality. We are still talking about a bill which, by its existence, acknowledges a desire by some groups and people in the United States to murder Black people cruelly and unlawfully.”

In 1916, Waco saw its own example of the cruelty of lynching with the Jesse Washington murder, just over a mile from Baylor’s campus.

“Some white Americans believed it was their right and privilege to harm and desecrate Black bodies with impunity,” Johnson said. “The American political and legal systems affirmed their beliefs by refusing to pass anti-lynching legislation and by not prosecuting the murderers and accomplices.”

Dr. Rachel Toombs, Baylor Interdisciplinary Core lecturer, said in teaching on the subject matter, she finds students to be surprised by the cruel details.

“I think many students know that lynchings were a common form of mob ‘justice,’” Toombs said. “But when I teach on lynchings during the Jim Crow era, I see many students surprised by the large number of reported lynchings and the likely much larger number unrecorded, as well as appalled by the grotesque nature of the lynchings, as they involved bodily mutilation, burning people alive, dragging bodies through main streets, including here in Waco, and selling body parts of the lynching victim as souvenirs. The most shocking element is the often festive mood around the more public lynchings.”

Houston senior and Baylor African Student Association president Owen Amadasu said he thinks anti-lynching bills weren’t passed due to the southern senators who were openly opposed to civil rights movements.

“Afterward, lynchings became less frequent and done more covertly by select groups and towns,” Amadasu said. “Many congressmen likely ignored it due to the ‘buzz’ dying down, which follows the fad of efforts surrounded by allyship, supposedly radical propositions and bills, and other aspects of social justice being spoken about until the events they are centered around stop trending.”

Amadasu said he thinks of the few who know about the passing of the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, many will forget about it in a week.

“Most Baylor students are privileged to not have this bill affect their everyday lives,” Amadasu said. “There might be some morale boosts and drops from those who approve of it and oppose it, but people rarely acknowledge plights that are not their own.”

Grand Prairie sophomore Jada Lewis said she believes most Baylor students don’t know that lynching was still legal up until recently.

“When you sit in privilege, you are very comfortable in it,” Lewis said. “And when you’re comfortable, you don’t look to become uncomfortable. So you’re not going to look into the bad history. You’re not going to try to see what others are going through because it doesn’t affect you directly; it doesn’t affect you personally.”

Lewis said she hopes people don’t let this pass in their minds as a fleeting thought; rather, she said she hopes it bursts people’s bubbles and that they acknowledge the ugly history of America.

“For people of color on Baylor’s campus, I just want them to know that even though it’s hard, change is happening and there is hope,” Lewis said. “We just need to keep raising our voices and keep fighting for that. And we will be heard.”