President Joe Biden signed a bill into law on Tuesday that makes lynching a federal hate crime, acknowledging how racial violence has left a lasting scar on the nation and asserting that these crimes are not a relic of a bygone era.
At a White House Rose Garden signing ceremony, the President didn’t hold back in describing the history of racial violence experienced by Black Americans and its continued impact.
He said, “Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone … belongs in America, not everyone is created equal. Terror, to systematically undermine hard-fought civil rights. Terror, not just in the dark of the night but in broad daylight. Innocent men, women and children hung by nooses in trees, bodies burned and drowned and castrated.”
“Their crimes? Trying to vote. Trying to go to school. Trying to own a business or preach the gospel. False accusations of murder, arson and robbery. Simply being Black,” he continued.
The bill Biden signed into law, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act of 2022, is named after a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered by a group of White men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a White woman in 1955. His murder sparked national outrage and was a catalyst for the emerging civil rights movement.
Lynching was a terror tactic used against Black Americans, particularly in the racially segregated South. According to Tuskegee University, which collects records on lynchings, 4,743 people were lynched from 1882 to 1968 and 3,446 of them were Black.
Reflecting on the “unwritten rules” of behavior Till’s mother passed onto her son, the President said, “That same admonition – too many Black parents still have to use that. They have to tell their children that when it comes to encounters with law enforcement.”
Biden said the new law “isn’t just about the past,” pointing to the murder of a 25-year-old Black man who was on a jog and a 2017 Virginia rally of White supremacists and White nationalists where a counterprotester was killed and scores were injured.
“From the bullets in the back of Ahmaud Arbery to countless other acts of violence, countless victims known and unknown, the same racial hatred that drove the mob to hang a noose brought that mob carrying torches out of the fields of Charlottesville just a few years ago – racial hate isn’t an old problem. It’s a persistent problem,” he emphasized.
Advocates have been trying to pass federal anti-lynching legislation for more than a century.
Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, who introduced the bill signed into law on Tuesday, also introduced a similar version of his current bill in 2019. The following year, the House passed that bill but Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, held it up over concerns that it was overly broad. Paul announced his support for the latest version of the bill earlier this month.
And when Vice President Kamala Harris was a senator, she and New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker and South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott introduced a bill that would make lynching a federal hate crime. The Senate approved the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act in late 2018, but the legislation didn’t make it through the House of Representatives.
During the signing ceremony, Harris noted that since anti-lynching legislation was first introduced in Congress in 1900, “anti-lynching legislation has been introduced to the United States Congress more than 200 times.”
“Lynching is not a relic of the past. Racial acts of terror still occur in our nation. And when they do, we must all have the courage to name them and hold the perpetrators to account,” she added.
The ceremony was attended my a wide array of advocates, administration officials and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, Biden thanked stakeholders “for never giving up.”
Standing beside Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the President pointed out that Wells-Barnett came to the White House in 1898 “in order to make a case for the anti-lynching law.”
Only three House Republicans – Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Chip Roy of Texas – voted against the bill. The legislation then passed the Senate by unanimous consent. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said at the time that Congress had tried and failed more than 200 times to outlaw lynching and that the new legislation was “long overdue.”
Rush, who attended the White House ceremony, said in a statement that he was “elated” to see the bill signed into law, adding, “I am so proud that we have come together – in a bipartisan fashion – to enact a law that will ensure lynchings are always punished as the barbaric crimes they are.”
Till’s cousin, the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., said in a statement: “My cousin was a bright, promising 14-year-old from Chicago. My family was devastated that no one was held responsible for the abduction, torture and murder of Emmett. But we are heartened by this new law, which shows that Emmett still speaks in powerful ways to make sure that no one can get away with a racist crime like this ever again.”
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Urban League also both praised the law’s signing.
The fund’s president, Janai S. Nelson, said the organization commends “Congress and President Biden for passing this long-overdue bill and signing it into law, and for sending a clear message that the US government is committed to deterring this pernicious form of targeted violence.”
This story has been updated with additional developments on Tuesday.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated where Emmett Till was from. He was from Chicago.
CNN’s Nicole Chavez contributed to this report.