Southern Baptist leaders commended the enactment of an anti-lynching law that required more than 120 years of legislative efforts before succeeding.
In a ceremony March 29 at the White House, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, which classifies lynching as a federal hate crime. Under the measure, a person found guilty of conspiring to carry out an act of lynching that results in “death or serious bodily injury” may be sentenced to a maximum of 30 years and fined.
Till, a 14-year-old African American from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 when he was abducted and viciously murdered allegedly for flirting with a white woman. At Till’s funeral, the casket was left open at his mother’s insistence so others could witness the brutality inflicted on her son. The events are credited with helping inspire the civil rights movement. While two white men were acquitted of the crime, they later told a reporter they had kidnapped and killed Till, according to the Associated Press (AP).
North Carolina Rep. George Henry White, the only Black member of Congress at the time, introduced the first anti-lynching law in 1900, and nearly 200 more congressional proposals were offered before the latest legislation passed both chambers, AP reported. The House of Representatives voted 422-3 for the bill Feb. 28, and the Senate passed it by unanimous consent March 7.
Willie McLaurin, interim president and chief executive officer of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Executive Committee (EC), told Baptist Press (BP) the bill’s signing “is a reminder that evil does not have the last word. Emmitt Till’s brutal lynching 67 years ago awakened the conscience of a nation and spurred a movement among African Americans to bring justice and equality.”
McLaurin, the first African American to lead an SBC entity, applauded “the action by our national administration that reflects the values that we hold dearly as a denomination. It is my prayer that the Emmitt Till Anti-lynching Act will bring peace to the Till family and be another step toward bringing healing to our nation.”
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon the wrongs,” he said in written comments. “Isaiah 1:17 speaks loudly in this moment: ‘Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.’”
Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “I think most people, upon hearing about this development, will be in disbelief that this wasn’t already addressed. Lynching, a heinous tactic of terrorism, should be relegated to the ash heap of history where it joins other dark elements from our past like slavery and Jim Crow laws.
“Despite how long it took to get here, we should applaud this move as it shows our nation, however slowly, is taking purposeful steps toward becoming a more perfect union.”
Frank Williams – president of the National African American Fellowship, SBC – said the bill’s enactment “is a victory for all of us. It demonstrates that Congress finally reached to the heart of the matter. It took a long time and over 6,000 lynchings to get here. This is tantamount to a legislative act of repentance. Repentance is both spiritual and social, and the social aspects involve how we value people as equals, and how our political systems reflect that value.”
The new law “says to the nation and to the world that the United States has taken another step in valuing the lives of its black citizens and residents, who have historically been the majority (not the only) who were terrorized by this violent act,” said Williams, senior pastor of Wake-Eden Community Baptist Church in the Bronx, N.Y., in written comments for BP.
“The patience of God to allow people time to get on His page about these moral issues amazes me. One of our senators said, ‘Hallelujah. It’s long overdue.’ I concur. Praise the Lord indeed, and I think that says it all.”
Charles Grant, executive director of African American relations and mobilization for the SBC EC, called the new law “a significant milestone in U.S. history.”
“I praise the Lord for this moment where Congress has passed and President Biden has signed a bill that’s been a long time coming,” Grant said in a written statement for BP. “This bill acknowledges the equal worth and reality that all human beings are made in the image of God. It acknowledges that hate crimes of the past have lingering influences on the hate crimes of today.
“The signing of this bill recognizes that hate crimes are an issue today that must have fair and just sentencing under the law. While grateful for the passing of this bill, the long delay causes me to reflect on the disturbing racial climate that still exists in America.”
Lynching normally refers to the slaying of a person based on his or her ethnicity without a trial for the victim. It was used historically by white mobs to strike fear into blacks for nearly a century after the Civil War. Public hangings of African Americans in front of large white crowds were common.
In a 2020 report, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Ala., documented the lynching of almost 6,500 black people in the United States between 1865 and 1950. “Thousands more were attacked, sexually assaulted and terrorized by white mobs and individuals who were shielded from arrest and prosecution,” the EJI said on its website.
While there is a symbolic aspect to the new law, its supporters said it also is needed to combat modern-day incidents of lynching. The 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery, 25, in Georgia might qualify as lynching under the measure, according to AP. Three white men followed Arbery in their pickup trucks as he was jogging before one of them shot and killed him. They were found guilty of murder and committing a hate crime.
“Lynching is just covered in a different camouflage,” said Rep. Bobby Rush, D.-Ill., the bill’s sponsor, AP reported. “The rope has been replaced with a shotgun and semi-automatic weapons.”
Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Tim Scott, R-S.C., were their parties’ lead sponsors in the Senate.
The Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, which adds new language to a previous hate crimes law, also covers conspiracy to commit an offense that “included kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.” The previous hate crimes law addresses offenses involving such “actual or perceived” categories as race, color, religion, gender, disability and sexual orientation.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)