As symbols go, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act is a fine one. It is a sign of racial progress that the legislation has passed both houses of Congress with negligible dissent and that a president who can be racially divisive has promised to sign it into law. It is also an undeniable assertion that lynching is a horrific act, and there should be severe consequences for anyone who perpetrates an extrajudicial killing.
Problem with the bill, though, is that it’s a half-century too late, not to mention redundant.
Places such as Mississippi sorely needed the intervention of federal prosecutors at the time that Till, a black 14-year-old, was abducted, tortured and killed not far from Greenwood for being fresh with a white female shopkeeper. In 1955, and for a decade or two after that, lynchings were not just a shameful reality in the South, where the threat of violence was used to maintain white supremacy, but they were also tolerated. Those who carried out these extrajudicial executions were rarely prosecuted and even more rarely convicted.
The lingering shame of the Till case is as much about the acquittal of his known killers as it is of the murder itself. That’s why Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were ostracized by whites for blabbing the truth in a paid interview after they were found not guilty. They exposed to the world that the white community by and large countenanced the persecution of blacks, even to the point of killing them, if they didn’t toe the line of white rule and racial segregation.
Thankfully, that era is long gone. The last documented lynching in the United States occurred more than 25 years ago. If a lynching were to happen today, there’s little doubt that state and local lawmen in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South would pursue the case. The law enforcement agencies — and the government bodies that oversee them — are integrated enough, and people’s racial attitudes have progressed enough, that anything less than a vigorous investigation and prosecution would be exposed and not tolerated.
Furthermore, lynchings, when they did occur in the past, were almost always race-based. If a race-based killing were to occur today, the existing federal hate crimes law already allows for federal prosecution. Adding lynching to the criteria for triggering federal involvement essentially duplicates what’s already on the books, and thus provides no real extra protection.
Passing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act may give those who remember those dark days of violent racial oppression a sense of accomplishment. They may see it as a measure of long overdue justice. If so, that’s a good thing.
But they should also understand that the impetus to pass a law that is practically and prosecutorially unnecessary is mostly about giving members of Congress something to crow about in an election year.