American Legal News recently received an e-mail from a reader with a request. The reader wanted an update on the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, a bill that unanimously passed the Senate in December, 2018. It spurred our interest, so ALN decided to dive in and see what the status of the bill was.
So, in response to the reader’s request, here’s where things stand on the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act.
What is the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act?
The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act is a rare bi-partisan piece of legislation. It was originally introduced by the only three African-American Senators: Democrats Corey Booker and Kamala Harris (currently rivals for their party’s presidential nomination) and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina.
The most noteworthy element of the bill is that it seeks, for the first time, to make lynching a federal crime. Under the bill, if two or more people are convicted of killing someone because of their “actual or perceived race, color, religion or national origin,” they will face a maximum of life in prison. If the victim is injured, the attackers face 10 years in prison.
While the bill is not strictly symbolic legislation (such violence is still a fact of life for many people of color in America), its biggest impact is in acknowledging the pervasive influence of lynching in American history. Thousands of African-Americans – often in the South, but across the country as well – were murdered in lynchings between the end of Reconstruction and the successes of the Civil Rights movement.
While we tend to think of lynchings in terms of white-robed Ku Klux Klan members murdering African-Americans under cover of darkness, many of these killings were the acts of respectable groups of citizens operating in broad daylight. Many of these groups actually took photographs of the lynchings.
Congress has, at various times, attempted to address lynchings at the federal level, but all efforts were stymied, often by Southern Democrats in the Senate.
The Legislative Status of the Bill
Harris, Booker and Scott introduced their bill in June of 2018 and secured unanimous passage in the Senate in December of that year. However, the House – then controlled by Republicans – did not pass its own version of the bill before Congress adjourned.
Harris, Booker and Scott re-introduced the bill to the new Senate in 2019, and in February it again passed unanimously.
That, again, puts the ball in the House’s court. H.R. 35, the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, was introduced in the House by Illinois Democrat Bobby Rush soon after the new Congress was seated in January. The most recent action on the bill came in June, when the House Judiciary Committee approved it and sent it to the full House. There has apparently been no movement on the bill since that committee vote.
However, there is another bill that exactly mirrors the text of the bill passed by the Senate. H.R. 3536 is also titled “The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act.” Introduced by seven members of the House, including one Republican, this bill was referred to the House Sub-Committee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security in July. There has been no recorded movement on the bill since.
Whether you’re looking at Rush’s bill or the House version of the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, the current state of play is that advocates are waiting passage in the lower chamber.
Lynching might seem a distant concern, an issue mired in America’s ugly racial history. But with the President of the United States invoking the term “lynching” to describe an impeachment inquiry into his official conduct, it would seem more important than ever to possess a full understanding of what lynching actually means.