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senate Bill S. 488

Should Lynching Be Punishable Under Federal Hate Crime Laws?

Argument in favor

Lynching is a horrific crime that historically has both hate- and race-based elements. Making it illegal at the federal level, and adding a hate crime enhancement, rights the historic wrong of the crime itself being allowed to continue for over a century, as well as the nearly 4,000 crimes of this nature that went largely unpunished.

Argument opposed

There hasn't been a documented lynching in the U.S. in nearly four decades, and the Civil Rights Act has long-since negated the need for a federal anti-lynching law. The Senate’s 2005 apology to lynching victims and their descendants suffices to right the wrong of the federal government failing to enact an anti-lynching law.

What is Senate Bill S. 488?

This bill — the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2019 — would make lynching a federal crime automatically warranting an enhanced sentence under existing federal hate crime statutes of up to 10 additional years imprisonment. This bill wouldn’t preclude murder charges, which can already be brought under existing law.

Impact

Federal hate crime laws; people who commit lynching; and victims of lynching.

Cost of Senate Bill S. 488

A CBO cost estimate is unavailable.

More Information

In-Depth: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), along with the two other African-American members of the Senate, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC), introduced this bill to make lynching a federal crime warranting an enhanced sentence under existing federal hate crime statutes:

“Lynchings were acts of violence  they were horrendous acts of violence and they were motivated by racism. With this bill, we finally have a chance to speak the truth about our past and make clear that these hateful acts should never happen again. We can finally offer some long overdue justice and recognition to the victims of lynching and their families.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) added the following after the Senate passed this bill:
"Today's Senate passage of the Justice For Victims of Lynching Act is a historic step towards acknowledging a long and painful history and codifying into law our commitment to confronting bias-motivated acts of terror in all of its forms. I urge the House of Representatives to take up this bill so that after over 100 years and 200 attempts, we can finally make lynching a federal crime."

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), also an original cosponsor of the bill, added:

"Today the Senate sent a strong signal that this nation will not stand for the hate and violence spread by those with evil in their hearts. I look forward to this important legislation ending up on the President's desk for signature."

When recently asked about anti-lynching legislation during the previous Congress, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) expressed support and said that he believed an anti-lynching law was already on the books. In an interview on Sirius XM, Sen. McConnell said, “I thought we did that many years ago. I hadn’t thought about it, I thought that was done back during L.B.J. or some period like that. If we need [an anti-lynching law] at the federal level, I certainly will support it.”

Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and the founder of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a national memorial acknowledging the victims of racial terror lynchings, argues:

“It is never too late for our nation to express our sorrow for the decades of racial terror that traumatized millions in this country. Passing an anti-lynching law is not just about who we were decades ago, it's a statement about who we are now that is relevant, important and timely."

In an NPR interview after the Senate passed a resolution apologizing to lynching victims for its failure to pass anti-lynching legislation, University of New Hampshire African-American History and American Studies professor Harvard Sitkoff argued that the need for federal anti-lynching legislation was negated by the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s:

“[L]ynching as such now has decreased very significantly. In part because of the threat of federal anti-lynching legislation, Southern states began to do much, much more to stop lynching from occurring and to themselves prosecute lynchers when a lynching did occur. To a very large extent, then, a federal anti-lynching law became superfluous.”

There are 47 bipartisan cosponsors of this bill, including 29 Democrats, 16 Republicans and two independents. The Senate unanimously passed this bill's predecessor in December 2018, but the House didn't approve the bill before the conclusion of the 115th Congress.


Of NoteLynching is the willful act of murder by a collection of people assembled with the intention of committing an act of violence upon any person. Historically, it’s been associated with racially-motivated crimes, especially in the South. From 1882 to 1968, nearly 5,000 peopleover 70% of whom were African-American, were victims of lynching in the U.S. Despite the number of crimes, 99% of those responsible for lynchings escaped prosecution or punishment by state or local officials. While lynching no longer occurs with regularity in the U.S., it’s never been officially made a federal offense. According to a film produced by Ted Koppel, the last documented lynching in the U.S. was of Michael Donald in Mobile, AL in 1981 by two members of the KKK.

Congress has tried — and failed — to enact anti-lynching legislation at least 240 times. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, seven presidents called for an end to lynching, and the House of Representatives passed multiple anti-lynching measures between 1920 and 1940. The Senate, however, repeatedly failed to enact anti-lynching legislation despite repeated requests by civil rights groups, presidents, and the House of Representatives.

In 1918, Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer (R-MO) was the first to introduce an anti-lynching bill. His bill, intended to punish authorities that failed to prevent lynching, was designed to act as a deterrent that’d end the practice. Dyer’s bill ultimately died in the Senate after facing stiff opposition.

The last attempt to pass an anti-lynching bill was in 1965. In 2005, the Senate issued an apology for its past legislative failures. In a bipartisan resolution, 90 out of 100 Senators apologized to lynching victims for the Senate’s repeated failure to enact anti-lynching legislation, and expressed their deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity, and the constitutional protections accorded to all U.S. citizens.


Media:

Summary by Lorelei Yang & Eric Revell

(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / madsci)

AKA

Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2019

Official Title

A bill to amend title 18, United States Code, to specify lynching as a deprivation of civil rights, and for other purposes.

bill Progress


  • Not enacted
    The President has not signed this bill
  • The house has not voted
      house Committees
      Committee on the Judiciary
      Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security
  • The senate has not voted
    IntroducedFebruary 14th, 2019