Anti-Lynching Legislation Is A Reminder Of Lawmaker Who Condoned Public Hangings
Lynchings are now considered a federal hate crime, and while the act may not be committed as often as it once was in the U.S.’s violent racist past, lynchings are still making headlines.
More than 4,000 people were lynched in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950.
The Senate voted Wednesday, 153 years after the end of the Civil War in 1865, and the bill passed by unanimous consent. It was sponsored by a bipartisan trio of Black lawmakers — Democratic Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris, and Republican Sen. Tim Scott.
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Congress has tried more than 200 times without success to pass anti-lynching legislation, Harris said. “While the House has passed anti-lynching bills in the past, Southern senators blocked the bills introduced in the Senate. In 2005, the Senate passed a resolution apologizing for its failure to pass anti-lynching legislation in the past,” WIVB reported.
In criminalizing lynching, the Senate has also criminalized attempts to lynch and conspiracy to lynch. “The path to here was not an easy one,” wrote Eugene Scott in the Washington Post:
The Washington Post reported in 2005 that ‘powerful southern senators, such as Richard B. Russell Jr. (D-Ga.), whose name was given to the Senate office building where the resolution was drafted, used the filibuster to block votes’ to make lynching a federal crime.”
Support for lynchings was on the minds of many Black Americans during the 2018 midterm elections when Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) said she would sit with a supporter in the front row of a “public hanging.”
Hyde-Smith made a series of divisive and racist slurs in the run-up to the election. She was criticized for joking with a crowd on Nov. 2 in Tupelo, Mississippi, about attending a public hanging. Mississippi is a state with a long history of racism and the highest rate of lynchings of African Americans during the Jim Crow era, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that works to end excessive punishment including mass incarceration.
Hyde-Smith went on to not only win her election but she was the presiding officer during Wednesday’s vote making lynching illegal.
The bill is a triumph for civil rights but too late for thousands of lynching victims. Between 1882 and 1968, 3,446 black people accounted for 73 percent of lynchings, according to the NAACP. Black Americans were lynched in the periods after the Civil War and after slavery ended, particularly in Southern states.
Hyde-Smith won a runoff election against Democrat Mike Espy, the first Black congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction.
When her “public hanging” comment went viral, Hyde-Smith rejected widespread criticism, insisting that she had “used an exaggerated expression of regard” for a supporter and that “any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”
At a subsequent news conference, Hyde-Smith repeatedly refused to answer questions about her “public hanging” comment, according to the News & Advance of Lynchburg, Virginia:
A reporter asked Hyde-Smith whether she is familiar with Mississippi’s history of lynchings. “I put out a statement yesterday, and that’s all I’m going to say about it,” she said. A reporter wanted to know whether Sen. Hyde-Smith could explain her supposedly positive connotation of “public hanging.” “I put out a statement yesterday, and we stand by the statement,” she said. “Is that phrasing in your everyday lingo, in your vocabulary?” another reporter asked. “I put out a statement yesterday,” Hyde-Smith said.
Sen. Booker spoke about the symbolism of the Senate vote:
“Today is an emotional and historic day. For over a century, members of Congress have attempted to pass some version of a bill that would recognize lynching for what it is: a bias-motivated act of terror. And for more than a century, and more than 200 attempts, this body has failed. Today, we have righted that wrong and taken corrective action that recognizes this stain on our country’s history.”