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Congress finally outlaws lynching - 65 years after murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till

Sixty-five years after 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi, the House has approved legislation designating lynching as a hate crime under federal law.

The bill, introduced by Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush and named after Till, comes 120 years after Congress first considered anti-lynching legislation and after dozens of similar efforts were defeated.

The measure was approved 410 to 4 on Wednesday. The Senate unanimously passed virtually identical legislation last year, although that bill wasn't named for Till. 

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill, which designates lynching as a federal hate crime punishable by up to life in prison, a fine, or both.

Rush, a Democrat whose Chicago district includes Till's former home, said the bill will belatedly achieve justice for Till and more than 4,000 other lynching victims, most of them African Americans.

Till, who was black, was brutally tortured and killed in 1955 after a white woman accused him of grabbing her and whistling at her in a Mississippi grocery store. The killing shocked the country and stoked the civil rights movement.

'The importance of this bill cannot be overstated,' said Rush, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. 

Horror: Emmett Till, who was just 14, was brutally tortured and killed in 1955 after a white woman accused him of grabbing her and whistling at her in a Mississippi grocery store. The killing shocked the country and stoked the civil rights movement.

Memory: Bobby Rush, the Democratic congressman whose Chicago district includes Emmett Till's former home said the importance of the 'Emmett Till Antilynching Act' - which would designate lynching as a hate crime under federal law - 'cannot be overstated.' He, Karen Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Steny Hoyer, House majority leader, spoke after the bill passed with just three Republicans and one independent voting against

Remembered: Emmett Till is buried in Alsip, Illinois, where his family returned his body after his torture and murder by a mob

'From Charlottesville to El Paso, we are still being confronted with the same violent racism and hatred that took the life of Emmett and so many others. The passage of this bill will send a strong and clear message to the nation that we will not tolerate this bigotry. '

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who represents the area where Till was abducted and murdered, called the anti-lynching bill long overdue, but said: 'No matter the length of time, it is never too late to ensure justice is served.'

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., used similar language to urge the bill's passage. 'It is never too late to do the right thing and address these gruesome, racially motivated acts of terror that have plagued our nation´s history,' he said, urging lawmakers to 'renew our commitment to confronting racism and hate.'

The bill was unanimously supported by Democrats. Three Republicans - Louie Gohmert of Texas, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Ted Yoho of Florida - opposed the bill, along with independent Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan.

Democratic Rep. Karen Bass of California, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, called lynching a lasting legacy of slavery.

'Make no mistake, lynching is terrorism,' she said. 'While this reign of terror has faded, the most recent lynching (in the United States) happened less than 25 years ago.'

Although Congress cannot truly rectify the terror and horror of these acts, Bass said, a legislative body that once included slave owners and Ku Klux Klan members will belatedly 'stand up and do our part so that justice is delivered in the future.'

Long fight for justice: The first anti-lynching legislation was introduced in 1900 by Congress' only black member,  North Carolina Rep. George Henry White. It failed; these protesters were drawing attention to the cause in 1948. Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill into law

Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey applauded House passage of the bill, which mirrors legislation they co-sponsored in the Senate along with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. The three are the Senate's only black members.

'Lynchings were horrendous, racist acts of violence,' Harris said in a statement. 'For far too long Congress has failed to take a moral stand and pass a bill to finally make lynching a federal crime. This justice is long overdue.'

Booker called lynching 'a pernicious tool of racialized violence, terror and oppression' and 'a stain on the soul of our nation.' While Congress cannot undo lynching's irrevocable damage, 'we can ensure that we as a country make clear that lynching will not be tolerated,' Booker said.

Congress has failed to pass anti-lynching legislation 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.

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers´ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said passage of the anti-lynching legislation 'marks a milestone in the long and protracted battle against white supremacy and racial violence in our country.'

The bill 'makes clear that lynchings occupy a dark place in our country´s story and provides recognition of thousands of victims of lynching crimes,' including Emmett Till and many others, Clarke said.


The federal government reopened its investigation into the brutal slaying of black teenager Emmett Till in 2018, 63 years after the black teenager's death in Mississippi.  

The Justice Department told Congress in a report that March it is reinvestigating Till's slaying in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 after receiving 'new information'. 

The case was closed in 2007 with authorities saying the suspects were dead; a state grand jury didn't file any new charges.

The federal report, sent annually to lawmakers under a law that bears Till's name, did not indicate what the new information might be.

But it was issued in late March following the publication in 2017 of 'The Blood of Emmett Till,' a book that says a key figure in the case acknowledged lying about events preceding the slaying of the 14-year-old youth from Chicago.

The book, by Timothy B Tyson, quotes a white woman, Carolyn Donham, as acknowledging during a 2008 interview that she wasn't truthful when she testified that Till grabbed her, whistled and made sexual advances at a store in 1955.

Two white men - Donham's then-husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother JW Milam - were charged with murder but acquitted in the slaying of Till, who had been staying with relatives in northern Mississippi at the time. 

The men later confessed to the crime in a magazine interview, but weren't retried. Both are now dead.

JW Milam, left, and Roy Bryant, right, were charged with Till's murder but acquitted. Months later they admitted to the murder in a magazine interview

Mourned: Emmett Till's mother insisted that he be buried in a glass-topped casket so the horror of his death could be seen. His funeral in Chicago was attended by thousands and his death helped motivate the civil rights movement

Donham, who turned 84 in July 2018, lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Abducted from the home where he was staying, Till was beaten and shot, and his mutilated body was found weighted down with a cotton gin fan in the Tallahatchie River. 

Images of his mutilated body in the casket gave witness to the depth of racial hatred in the Deep South and helped build momentum for subsequent civil rights campaigns.

Relatives of Till pushed then attorney general Jeff Sessions to reopen the case in 2017 following publication of the book.

Donham, then known as Carolyn Bryant and 21 years old at the time, testified in 1955 as a prospective defense witness in the trial of Bryant and Milam. With jurors out of the courtroom, she said a 'n****r man' she didn't know took her by the arm.

'Just what did he say when he grabbed your hand?' defense attorney Sidney Carlton asked, according to a trial transcript released by the FBI a decade ago.

'He said: "How about a date, baby?"' she testified. Bryant said she pulled away, and moments later the young man 'caught me at the cash register,' grasping her around the waist with both hands and pulling her toward him.

'He said: "What's the matter baby, can't you take it?"' she testified. Bryant also said he told her 'you don't need to be afraid of me', claiming that he used an obscenity and mentioned something he had done 'with white women before'.

A judge ruled the testimony inadmissible. An all-white jury freed her husband and the other man even without it. 

Testimony indicated a woman might have been in a car with Bryant and Milam when they abducted Till, but no one else was ever charged.

In the book, author Tyson wrote that Donham told him her testimony about Till accosting her wasn't true.

'Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,' the book quotes her as saying.

Alabama Senator Doug Jones introduced legislation in 2018 that would make the government release information about unsolved civil rights killings. 

Jones said the Till killing or any other case likely wouldn't be covered by this legislation if authorities were actively investigating.

'You'd have to leave it to the judgment of some of law enforcement agencies that are involved or the commission that would be created' to consider materials for release, Jones said. The legislation has not been taken up.