In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till, a black boy from Chicago, was visiting with relatives in Money, Mississippi. While hanging out and joking around with some of his cousins and friends outside of a local store, Till was dared to ask a white woman out on a date.
Taking up the challenge, Till walked into the store, bought some candy, and on his way back outside, he simply said “bye, baby” to the white woman running the store.
Knowing that there were no witnesses, the woman in the store, Carolyn Bryant, later tried to claim that Till had “grabbed her, made lewd advances and wolf-whistled at her as he sauntered out.”
The woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, was the owner of the store. Once he heard the allegations Carolyn was making against Till, both Roy and his brother, J.W. Milam, went to find the young boy in the early morning hours of August 28th. The two forced Till into their car, and then they drove to the Tallahatchie River.
Bryant and Milam forced the boy to “carry a 75-pound cotton-gin fan to the bank” of the river before they beat him beyond recognition, shot him in the head, and threw him in the river, tied to the heavy cotton gin with barbed wire.
His body wasn’t found for three days. When it was found, they could only identify him by a ring still on his finger. Although his relatives in Mississippi wanted to bury him as quickly as possible, his mother, Mamie Bradley, demanded this his body be brought back to Chicago, where she would hold an open-casket funeral for her son.
Mamie Bradley wanted the world to see what had been done to her son — and more importantly, what was being done to young black boys all over the country.
Emmett Till became a symbol of lynching, a threat black people had been facing since their ancestors first set foot on American soil.
Fast-forward sixty-five years, and lynching still is not considered a crime here in the United States; there is no law on the books that criminalizes this gruesome, malevolent type of murder.
However, on Wednesday, February 26, 2020, the House of Representatives passed the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, which would make lynching a federal crime and carries the weight of a life-sentence.
The vote in the House passed 410-4.
The Congress members who voted against the bill are:
- Justin Amash (I-Michigan)
- Louie Gohmert (R-Texas)
- Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky)
- Ted Yoho (R-Florida)
The bill would designate lynching as a hate crime, and it lays out the consequences for doing so quite clearly:
Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, willfully, acting as part of any collection of people, assembled for the purpose and with the intention of committing an act of violence upon any person, causes death to any person, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, fined under this title, or both.
The bill also states the deeper purpose of creating this new law, by saying the goal is “[t]o heal past and present racial injustice, Congress must make lynching a Federal crime so our Nation can begin reconciliation.”
Representative Bobby Rush (D-Illinois) is the member of Congress responsible for introducing the bill to the House in January. Rush said he made the decision to name the bill after Emmett Till, who was from the same district Rush now represents, because seeing photos of Till in his casket (as was his mother’s wish) “created an indelible imprint on my brain, on my spirit. It made me conscious of the risk, the trepidation of being a black man in America.”
Rush’s hope is that the bill will also be passed by the Senate by the end of the week, which would be symbolic because the new law would come into existence during Black History Month. The bill would then go to the White House for President Trump’s signature.
In response to the bill being passed on Wednesday, Rep. Bobby Rush stated “Today, we send a strong message that violence — and race-based violence, in particular — has no place in America.”