The first federal legislation making lynching a hate crime, addressing a history of racist killings in the United States, became law on Tuesday.
The bill, passed by the Senate this month, is named for Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955.
Joe Biden signed the bill surrounded by Kamala Harris, members of Congress and top justice department officials.
He was also joined by a descendant of Ida B Wells, a Black journalist who reported on lynchings, and the Rev Wheeler Parker, a cousin of Till.
The bill makes it possible to prosecute as a lynching any conspiracy to commit a hate crime that results in death or serious bodily injury.
According to the bill’s champion, the Illinois congressman Bobby Rush, the law lays out a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and fines.
Till’s death, and an all-white jury’s dismissal of charges against two white men who later confessed to his killing, drew national attention to the atrocities and violence that African Americans face in the United States and became a civil rights rallying cry.
With the bill signing, the president was addressing both “unfinished business” and “horror” in America’s history, Harris said from the White House Rose Garden after the bill signing.
Harris, the country’s first Black and Asian American vice-president, co-sponsored the bill while serving as a US senator from California.
“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 said.
In August, the FBI said the number of hate crimes in the United States had risen the previous year to the highest level in more than a decade, driven by a rise in assaults against Black victims and victims of Asian descent.
Biden said the law was not just about addressing history.
“It’s about the present and our future as well,” he said, mentioning the rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. “Racial hate isn’t an old problem. It’s a persistent problem.”
Congress first considered anti-lynching legislation more than 120 years ago.
Until March of this year, it had failed to pass such legislation nearly 200 times.
"It’s a long time coming,” said Parker, two years older than Till, who was with his cousin at their relatives’ home in Mississippi and witnessed Till’s kidnapping.
The House approved the bill 422-3 on 7th March, with eight members not voting, after it cleared the Senate by unanimous consent.
Rush had introduced a bill in January 2019 but it stalled in the Senate.
During a video interview after the bill signing, Parker credited current events for helping the anti-lynching bill move through Congress and to Biden’s desk.
Parker highlighted the police killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, which sparked months of global protests.
He drew a connection between Floyd and Till, saying: “That’s what caused Rosa Parks to not give her seat up and that sparked the civil rights movement, because she thought about Emmett Till.”