For the better part of a century, lawmakers in the United States have been pushing for an anti-lynching bill that would make this torturous form of killing a federal hate crime. This week the fruit of those efforts was reaped as President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act into law.
“To the members of Congress here today… and the civil rights leaders here today—most of all the families of Emmett Till and Ida B. Wells, thank you for never giving up,” Biden said during the historic occasion. “For never ever giving up.”
Till’s story has long been used to underscore the unfair treatment of Blacks throughout the nation’s history. As Biden orated to attendees, Till was just 14-years-old when a trip to Mississippi turned fatal. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam tortured and killed the Chicago native following an accusation that he flirted with a white woman. The story, that has long been disputed, remains a cautious tale of the lengths some will go in the name of hate. “My cousin was a bright, promising 14-year-old from Chicago,” Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. recalled on Tuesday. “My family was devastated that no one was held responsible for the abduction, torture, and murder of Emmett.”
Nearly seven decades after his homicide, family members, like Parker, are encouraged that this new law will ensure racist crimes like Till’s will not go unpunished. “This new law shows that Emmett still speaks in powerful ways,” Parker asserts. “The wheels of justice grind so slowly, but I and the Till Institute appreciate Congressman Rush and President Biden for their leadership to continue to grind, and to enshrine in law that lynching is a federal hate crime.”
From 1882 to 1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the U.S., according to records maintained by the NAACP. Of those, 72 percent were Black. Investigative journalist Ida B. Wells was at the forefront of bringing these atrocities to light and was among those who led the crusade for a federal anti-lynching law. Her protests for reform led to the White House doors, and spanned and reported seven presidential administrations. While Tuesday’s signing is indicative of the strides that Washington has made in acknowledging the plight of Black Americans, those close to the Till family are decidedly clear that the work is not over.
“This law is an important step in the right direction. But there is more work to be done,” says Dr. Marvel Parker, Executive Director of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Institute. As a torch bearer of Emmett and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley’s legacy, Parker is determined to erect a national memorial to forever inscribe Emmett and Mamie’s story. “Interpretive sites in Chicago and in the Mississippi Delta, would solidify Mamie Till-Mobley's desire to make sure her son did not die in vain,” says Dr. Parker. “We look forward to continuing to work with our partners at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and National Park Conservation Association to preserve this American story, reckon with the past, and create a path toward understanding, reconciliation, and healing.”
Healing for Black Americans has often felt like a transient experience. Society has evolved, racial tolerance has amplified, but modern-day killings still evoke Till’s story. “Emmett Till’s 1955 lynching is the first Black Lives Matter story,” says Christopher Benson, President of the Till Institute board. “For people of color, lynching has been a ubiquitous part of American life following Reconstruction, as an act of racial power to enforce place in our society.” Benson notes that Till’s death galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.
Before cell phone videos began capturing these atrocities, the pages of JET published the untouched images of a bludgeoned and unrecognizable Till in his casket upon the request of his mother. Times have changed, but Blacks are still victims of these public executions.
“Lynchings such as Ahmaud Arbery's, Breonna Taylor's and George Floyd's are very much reflective of what happened to my cousin,” Deborah Watts, Cousin and Founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, said in a USA Today op-ed late last year. “We continue to see a through line from the past injustices in 1955 and the injustices that continue today. They are all reflective of the criminal, civil and human rights movements that place Black, brown and Indigenous bodies in the forefront of the struggle for justice and reform.”
Benson is hopeful that the newly signed Emmett Till Anti-lynching law forces the nation to face its history recognize the need for systemic change to advance the values of a truly multicultural society. “We will keep telling Emmet’s story, and tell the stories of countless others who have stood up to injustice,” says Benson, “and inspire visitors to continue the struggle for racial justice today.”