As Congress prepares to wade into a contentious debate over legislation to address police brutality and systemic racial bias, a long-simmering dispute in the Senate over a far less controversial bill that would for the first time explicitly make lynching a federal crime has burst into public view.
The bill, called the Emmett Till Antilynching Act after the 14-year-old black boy who was tortured and killed in 1955 in Mississippi, predates the recent high-profile deaths of three black men and women at the hands of white police and civilians that have inspired protests across the country. It passed the House this year by a vote of 410-4 and has the backing of 99 senators, who have urged support for belated federal recognition of a crime that once terrorized black Americans.
But the private objections of one Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, have succeeded for months in preventing it from becoming law. At a time when lawmakers are looking at an array of other, potentially more divisive proposals to respond to a spate of recent killings of black Americans, the impasse illustrates the volatile mix of raw emotion and political division that has often frustrated attempts by Congress to enact meaningful changes in the law when it comes to matters of racial violence.
The issue erupted on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, when Paul sought to narrow the bill’s definition of lynching and push the revised measure through without a formal vote, drawing angry rebukes from two of the bill’s authors, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, both African American Democrats.
Paul argued that the lynching bill was sloppily written and could lead to yet another injustice — excessive sentencing for minor infractions — unless it was revised.
“This bill would cheapen the meaning of lynching by defining it so broadly as to include a minor bruise of abrasion,” he said. “Our national history of racial terrorism demands more seriousness of us than that.”
Paul said that he took lynching seriously, but “this legislation does not.”
Harris rose to object, delivering a seething broadside against Paul as she noted that even as they debated, mourners were gathering to honor George Floyd, the African American man who died last week after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“The idea that we would not be taking the issue of lynching seriously is an insult — an insult to Senator Booker and Senator Tim Scott and myself,” she said from across the chamber floor, referring to the South Carolina Republican who helped write the bill and is the party’s lone black senator.
“To suggest that lynching would only be a lynching if someone’s heart was pulled out and displayed to someone else is ridiculous,” she added. “It should not require a maiming or torture for us to recognize a lynching when we see it and recognize it by federal law and call it what it is, which is that it is a crime that should be punishable with accountability and consequence.”
At issue is what, exactly, counts as lynching under federal law. The bill would add a new section called “lynching” to the civil rights statute to deal with group violence meant to intimidate people of color or other protected groups. The offense would be classified as a conspiracy by two or more people to cause bodily harm in connection with a hate crime, with penalties up to life in prison if convicted. Paul proposed to raise the bar beyond the standard in federal hate crimes statutes, to “serious bodily injury,” so that only crimes involving conspiracy to cause “substantial risk of death and extreme physical pain” could be charged as lynching, according to aides.
Such crimes can already be considered hate crimes under state and federal law. But the term lynching has deep historical significance, and the fact that it has never been formally outlawed has been an enduring symbol of Congress’ inability to fully reckon with the nation’s history of racial violence. The issue has taken on even greater significance in recent days.
Harris called the recent killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man jogging in Georgia who was chased down and shot by white men, “a modern lynching.” In court Thursday, one of the men charged with murder in the case said he heard another use a racial slur as Arbery lay dying.
Members of Congress have been fighting in one way or another to pass federal anti-lynching laws for more than a century, introducing nearly 200 such bills in the first half of the 20th century. When such a law would have had the most explicit effect, during the Jim Crow era when thousands of black people where lynched across the country, Southern senators succeeded repeatedly in blocking its passage.
The Senate formally apologized in 2005 for failing to outlaw the practice and long ago adopted other measures to make racially motivated killings federal crimes.
Speaking after Harris on Thursday, Booker, describing himself as “raw” over the state of the country, pleaded with Paul to drop his objections, if only to offer some hope to a nation in pain.
“It may not cure the ills so many are protesting about, but God, it could be a sign of hope,” he said.
Paul has such influence because senators are trying to pass the bill by unanimous consent rather than through a traditional recorded vote, meaning any one senator can grind consideration to a halt. The bill would easily have passed were it put up for a regular vote, but Republican leaders have so far been unwilling to go that route because it would eat up several days of the full Senate’s time and they believe Paul may yet be persuaded to drop his objections.
Booker and Paul have worked together on criminal justice legislation in the past and are recognized as two of the Senate’s leading advocates for reducing prison sentences and lowering incarceration rates. But Booker chastised Paul for being the lone obstacle in Congress to the anti-lynching bill.
“Tell me another time when 500-plus Congress people — Democrats, Republicans, House members and senators — come together in a chorus of conviction and say, ‘Now is the time in America that we condemn the dark history of our past and actually pass anti-lynching legislation,’” Booker said.
Paul conceded that his position was unpopular but insisted that changes were necessary so that the measure would be worthy of its name.
“You think I take joy in being here?” he said. “I will be excoriated by simple-minded people on the internet who think somehow I don’t like Emmet Till or appreciate the history or memory of Emmett Till.”
Paul said he was concerned that the bill would allow excessive penalties against people who commit more minor, racially motivated acts of violence, like slapping or pushing. He did not account for why his position had changed from last year, when he supported the bill as written.
“Words have meaning,” he said. “It would be a disgrace for the Congress of the United States to declare that a bruise is lynching, that an abrasion is lynching, that any injury to the body, no matter how temporary, is on par with the atrocities done to people like Emmett Till.”
Booker said the notion that anyone would be charged with lynching for slapping someone was “absurd.”
Paul did not back down, and senators left Washington for the week without reaching a resolution, leaving Democrats calling the episode a missed opportunity.
“The frustrating thing for me is that at a time this country hungers for common-sense racial reconciliation, an acknowledgment of our past and a looking forward to a better future, this will be one of the sad days where that possibility was halted,” Booker said.