Every year during the month of February since 1976, we have taken the time to reflect on the countless contributions that African Americans have made to this nation. Though President Gerald Ford recognized that it was exceedingly frequent that African-American accomplishments were generally neglected, acknowledging those achievements is simply not enough. That became apparent during this week’s vote of H.R. 35, the “Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act”.
In 1900, activist journalist Ida B. Wells described lynching as this country’s “national crime, carried out by intelligent people who openly avow that there is an unwritten law that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without an opportunity to make a defense and without a right of appeal.”
All of us should be concerned that it has taken more than 200 bites at the legislative apple to get what most reasonable people would consider a “common sense” bill passed. This, despite the recognition of lynching’s unquestionable immorality. After more than 100 years since the first introduction, the passage of the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act in the year 2020 is a reminder that change in this country is painfully slow. In the past, anti-lynching bills in the House have either stalled or were killed in the Senate. For more than a century, Southern resistance and Northern indifference contributed to the undermining of those legislative efforts.
During the time period between 1882 and 1968, more than 4,000 lynchings occurred in America. Of those 4,000, 72% of those people were African American. The newly passed Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act makes lynching a federal hate crime subjecting the violator to a prison term, a fine or both.
How fitting that this bill would be named after Emmett Till. The young 14-year-old teen who in 1955, left Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi. Till was accused of whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who was a cashier at a local grocery store. Four days later, Bryant’s husband and other family members kidnapped Till, beat him, shot him in the head and lynched him.
In August of 2016, President Donald Trump posed the question to African Americans “What do you have to lose?” Well, four years later, President Trump sabotaged a law that guaranteed health insurance for many African Americans; he has undermined protections for voting rights; the Trump Justice Department is no longer holding police departments terrorize African American communities accountable; and he has used rhetoric that suggests the citizenship of African Americans is conditional and less than that of White Americans.
Now with the senate’s all but imminent passage of H.R. 35, the measure heads to the desk of President Trump for his signature. This will be a litmus test by the African American community for this White House. To see whether there is an ounce of compassion, empathy or remorse for a community that has for hundreds of years been abused by a system that has chosen to disregard its existence. That is a loss that the African American community simply cannot bear.
I have said many times, a politician without compassion is a criminal. I believe a country without compassion, empathy and understanding is inherently immoral. Yes, in 2020 this Congress passed anti-lynching legislation but four of my colleagues chose to vote against it. Those four represent a part of America that I had hoped no longer existed. A part of America that I thought had moved passed the loathing of people who are different.
For my four colleagues and their constituents who agree with their vote, I implore you to pay a visit to Montgomery, Alabama and take a tour of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This memorial is this country’s first that is dedicated to the legacy of racial terror. There you will find 801 six-foot monuments that symbolize the brutal deaths of lynched African Americans. The names of the victims are carved into the steel columns that dangle from beams.
All of us living in America today must face head-on some uncomfortable truths when it comes to the matters of racism, inequality, and injustice in America. It is time to not just do what is easy, it is time to do what is right.
Brenda L. Lawrence (D), represents Michigan’s 14th Congressional District and is 2nd Vice Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Co-Chair of both the Bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues and Democratic Women’s Caucus.
By Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence