Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, stands with Vice President Kamala Harris (left) and President Joe Biden after Biden signed into law H.R. 55, the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, in the White House Rose Garden on March 29. (Cheriss May/The Washington Informer)
Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, stands with Vice President Kamala Harris (left) and President Joe Biden after Biden signed into law H.R. 55, the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, in the White House Rose Garden on March 29. (Cheriss May/The Washington Informer)

I can’t completely or accurately articulate my elation upon witnessing President Biden signing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law on March 29, 2022. With his signature, he affirmed what Congress had acknowledged — that lynching is, indeed, a federal hate crime. My only question was, “Why has it taken so long?”

In the past century, the effort to legally outlaw lynching federally failed over 200 times. I cannot and never have been able to understand how lynching could not have been determined as the physical embodiment of hatred.

This signing event brought a myriad of thoughts and memories to mind. The image of the NAACP “lynching flag” swirled through my mind. This flag, with the inscribed words “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY,” was flown from the window of the NAACP national headquarters in New York whenever a lynching had been confirmed in the U.S. Although named after Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered in 1955, the act recognizes the thousands of mostly African Americans who met their fate at the end of a noose or by some other diabolical means generated in the malignant minds of racists.

Reflecting on the events lodged in my mind, I thought of the lynching of Hayes and Mary Turner, the circumstances of which truly epitomize racial hatred. In 1918, in Morven, Georgia, 25-year-old Hayes Turner was accused of killing an abusive (white) landowner and subsequently lynched. Hayes’ 18-year-old wife Mary publicly opposed his lynching and threatened legal action against the white people who had murdered him. The following day, Mary was hanged upside down from a tree, doused with gasoline and motor oil, and set on fire. Mary was still alive when a member of the mob split her abdomen open with a knife and her unborn child fell on the ground. The baby was stomped and crushed after it fell to the ground. Her body was riddled with hundreds of bullets. Those actions can only be the product of hatred.

I also reflected on the year 2005 when Janet Langhart-Cohen, Mark Planning, Dick Gregory and I walked into the offices of almost every U.S. senator promoting a 2005 anti-lynching bill. Our goals were lofty. Among them was the renaming the Richard Russell Senate Building, named after the notorious and rabidly racist Georgia senator. This building was representative of the prestige and authority of one-half of our governing body and we felt its name was inconsistent with the spirit of our entire nation.

When we were unable to garner sufficient support for a name change, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu offered an alternative — an apology from the U.S. Senate for failing to acknowledge and apologize for the nation’s legacy of lynching. The House of Representatives had done so. Several U.S. presidents had done so. It was unconscionable that an apology had never been offered by the U.S. Senate. After numerous meetings and intensive lobbying, the Senate finally offered its apologies. The refusals by the few senators who objected to the apology spoke volumes about their characters and those who supported them.

Now, at long last, we’ve gone past a mere “We’re sorry!” We have legal punitive enhancements in place to discourage the commission of crimes based upon hate and animus. We have finally put some teeth into our “bite out of crime.”

Realistically, a point of common logic informs us that legal deterrence only has limited success. Racial hatred, which is the fuel for the most egregious of violent offenses will continue to motivate acts of ill will. Fortunately, we now have a tool to put racial hatred in its proper place.

Williams is president of the National Congress of Black Women.

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