Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act: Acknowledging our country’s racist past is step towards an anti-racist future
By Kelvin Beachum
Recently, President Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act into law, following decades of failed attempts by Congress to enact similar bills. Congress first considered anti-lynching legislation more than 120 years ago. Anti-lynching legislation has failed to pass nearly 200 times, starting with a bill introduced in 1900 by North Carolina Rep. George Henry White, the only Black member of Congress at the time. In the early 1920s, the NAACP began its efforts to pass an anti-lynching bill. Federal hate crime legislation eventually was passed in the 1990s — decades after the civil rights movement. The current bill makes lynching a federal hate crime, giving federal prosecutors another tool in their arsenal to punish hate to the fullest extent of the law and prove that it will not be tolerated. The new law carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and fines for anyone conspiring to commit an act of lynching that causes death or injury. Lynching is different than murder as it is typically motivated by the victim’s race, sexual orientation, or religion. Those who lynch intend to send a message to the community that members of that race or class are not welcome. The intention is to elicit terror.
This moment marks a critical first step in our government’s recognition of our nation’s atrocious history of racially motivated hate crimes. We must make sure, however, that this passage is merely a first step in acknowledging all of the ways that racism has harmed people of color in this country. In 2015, the Equal Justice Initiative issued a report that detailed more than 4,400 documented racial terror lynchings of Black people in America between 1877 and 1950. It is imperative that we acknowledge the full scope of the horror of lynching and the ways in which it has been pervasive throughout our history and now — a horror made worse by the realization that killers have not been held fully accountable under federal law.
While the bill is named for Emmett Till, it’s important to recognize that lynchings still occur in America. The three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery lynched him. I grew up three hours from the town of Jasper, Texas, where in 1998, three white men offered James Byrd, a Black man, a ride home. They then chained him by his ankles to a pickup truck and dragged him for miles across town until he died. Since 2000, there have been at least eight suspected lynchings of Black men and teenagers in Mississippi. Lynchings are most often used against Black people, but not exclusively. In 1998, white men beat, tortured, and left Matthew Shepard to die in Laramie, Wyoming, because he was gay. With the passing of this bill, federal prosecutors will have cause to invoke The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act in the fight against those who use violence to enforce their bigoted views.
Emmett Till and so many others should be alive today. Passing the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act into law is a first step in righting historic injustices. Lynching has always been a hate crime. After twelve decades of fighting for it and for the first time in American history, the federal government finally recognizes it as one.
Kelvin Beachum is a ten-year NFL veteran currently signed with the Arizona Cardinals. In addition to his commitments with the NFL, Beachum works directly with advocacy groups to end hunger and provide access and educational opportunity to minority students, specifically in STEM. Beachum is a professional speaker as well as an active investor, focusing mainly on the technology ecosystem.