Posted on March 7, 2020

Declaring Lynching a Crime Is Empty Symbolism

Stacey Patton, Washington Post, March 5, 2020

After 120 years, 200 failed bills and at least 4,742 lives taken between 1882 and 1968, the House of Representatives voted last week, 410 to 4, to pass historic legislation that finally makes lynching a federal crime. Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), who sponsored H.R. 35, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, said it will “send a strong message that violence, and race-based violence in particular, has no place in American society.”

Some people may say better a century too late than never, or they may regard this bill as a necessary act of historical remembrance. But when I think of the dead — especially the untold numbers of child victims, and the two men in my own family lynched at the hands of persons unknown — I can’t see this bill as anything but, at best, an empty symbolic gesture. Passing it may allow white America to feel good about its glacial evolution toward developing a consensus that recognizes ritualistic torture, genital mutilation and murder is wrong. But it is naive to think that banning lynching decades too late will do anything to heal black America’s deep and lasting scars. Nor will it stop newer state-sanctioned forms of violence that still dehumanize and take black lives today.

I am researching a book about the lynching of black children, whose bodies served as the convergence point of white insanity during Jim Crow. The horrors I’ve seen so far in the archives laid the foundation for contemporary punitive treatment and recent debates over whether unarmed black youths such as Trayvon MartinMichael BrownTamir Rice and others deserved to die at the hands of vigilantes or police officers.

Consider, for example, the sadistic killing of one black youth a century ago.

On May 15, 1916, thousands of white people gathered in a giant circle at City Hall in the middle-class community of Waco, Texas, to lynch 17-year-old Jesse Washington, a developmentally delayed farmhand accused of raping and killing a white woman with a blacksmith hammer. {snip}


Had lawmakers passed the first anti-lynching measure proposed in 1900 by Rep. George Henry White (R-N.C.), the only black member of Congress at the time, Jesse Washington may have finished childhood and turned into a productive worker, husband and father with generations of descendants. {snip}

By the late 1940s, public lynchings by large crowds with great publicity had become the exception rather than the rule: The technique changed, with terrorists operating secretly in small bands. Many black people, whose names are lost to history now, simply disappeared. Routine slaughters were eventually displaced by state-sponsored executions clothed in the legal process and police shootings with cops justifying “coldblooded killings on the all too usual ground that the Negro prisoner tried to overpower him,” a Washington Post editorial noted in March 1948. More than a half-century later, the words “I feared for my life” continue to be invoked by police who kill unarmed black people.

So the bill the House passed last week may look like progress, but it masks a larger truth: Lynching was a specific type of murder, but murder continues to be integral to the constantly evolving American system of racial oppression. {snip}


Collective violence against black people is not just a thing of the past. How will this legislation address police violence, which recent reporting indicates has resulted in more black deaths than lynching did? {snip}

While elected officials are giving the appearance of addressing historical wrongs, especially racial violence, are they willing to seriously consider providing reparations to the families of the thousands of documented victims? The federal government set a precedent in 1892, when it paid $25,000 to the families of 11 Italian immigrants who were lynched in New Orleans. {snip}

If Congress is only now showing itself capable of drafting laws that would have been useful 100 years ago, what faith in justice can we have in them to draft laws that address racial violence as it occurs today? {snip}