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Linda Wiggins-Chavis is a Faith in Florida Organizer in Hillsborough County, Florida. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.
On March 29, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime. Though we celebrate this historic moment, many are left questioning why this legislation took more than 100 years to enact.
Lynching was a “Southern horror” which became widespread not long after slavery ended. From the 1880s to the 1960s, white mobs terrorized and hanged thousands of Black people. In addition to the everyday occurrences of racial violence perpetrated during this era, racial terrorists tortured, mutilated, decapitated and desecrated Black people, including children. Some were burned alive, and some had their genitals cut off and given away as souvenirs.
Announcements of upcoming lynchings were made during church services, photos were taken, postcards were printed for posterity and entire families attended as if lynching were a spectator sport.
The public display of these tortured bodies was used as a form of psychological intimidation and control to force Black people to remain subservient to systems of white supremacy that have oppressed us ever since the first slave ship landed in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619.
There were nearly 6,500 documented lynchings between 1865 and 1950, and many more remain undocumented. Yet Congress has failed to pass this bill more than 200 times. It was not until the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, which brought a racial reckoning movement to the United States, that the anti-lynching bill was brought back into consideration, more than a century later.
Emmett Till’s killers, half-brothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury in 1955. Emmett Till’s accuser, Carolyn Bryant, still walks free. Even with the passing of this act, Till’s family is still seeking justice for his murder.
Though we don’t experience the same form of lynching as our ancestors, there are still “modern-day lynchings” of unarmed victims killed by purveyors of racial terror and the police, including Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and others.
While this act imposes criminal penalties on civilians, it does nothing to safeguard the Black community against police officers who kill unarmed victims with impunity and avoid accountability due to the protection provided by qualified immunity. This legal doctrine shields law enforcement officers from being sued for violating a person’s constitutional rights, unless those rights are “clearly established.”
Alongside the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, additional legislation must be passed to fully protect Black lives. In 2020, members of the Congressional Black Caucus proposed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. But because it challenged this practice of qualified immunity, it was not passed by the Senate.
The passage of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act is tainted by the stains of U.S. history. Stains that mark the torture and pain suffered by countless Black Americans. Stains that mark the agony of mothers who have had to bury their children while never seeing justice served. Stains that mark the ways in which white supremacy devalues brown skin. Stains that continually say that we are less than human.
Stains that must be wiped away by the “arc of the moral universe” as we continue to work toward justice.