WASHINGTON (NewsNation) — Presidents typically say a few words before they turn legislation into law. But Joe Biden flipped the script Tuesday when it came time to put his signature on the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act.
He signed the bill at a desk in the White House Rose Garden. Then he spoke.
“All right. It’s law,” said the president, who was surrounded by Vice President Kamala Harris, members of Congress and top Justice Department officials. He was also joined by a descendant of Ida B. Wells, a Black journalist who reported on lynchings, and Rev. Wheeler Parker, a cousin of Till.
Biden said it’s “a little unusual to do the bill signing, not say anything and then speak. But that’s how we set it up.”
He thanked the audience of civil rights leaders, Congressional Black Caucus members and other guests who kept pushing for the law for “never giving up, never ever giving up.”
The new law makes lynching a federal hate crime; the U.S. Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent earlier this month. Harris was a prime sponsor of the bill when she was in the Senate.
The legislation is named for 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was visiting relatives in Mississippi, from his home in Chicago in 1955 when it was alleged that he whistled at a white woman. He was kidnapped, beaten and shot in the head. A large metal fan also was tied to his neck with barbed wire. Till’s body then was thrown into a river. His mother insisted on an open funeral casket to show the world what had been done to her child.
Till’s brutal murder was an event that drew national attention to the atrocities and violence that African Americans faced in the United States and became a civil rights rallying cry.
The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, which Congress passed March 7, makes it possible to prosecute a crime as a lynching when a conspiracy to commit a hate crime results in death or serious bodily injury.
“After more than 200 failed attempts to outlaw lynching, Congress is finally succeeding in taking a long-overdue action by passing the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said when the chamber passed the bill.
A 2020 version of the bill set the maximum sentence as 10 years. The one Biden will sign comes with 30 years in prison and fines for anyone conspiring to commit an act of lynching that causes death or injury.
The bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 422-3, with eight members not voting. The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent. Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush introduced this version in January 2021. He had introduced a bill as well in January 2019 and the House passed the bill 410-4, but that one stalled in the Senate.
Congress first considered anti-lynching legislation more than 120 years ago. It had failed to pass anti-lynching legislation nearly 200 times, starting with a bill introduced in 1900 by North Carolina Rep. George Henry White, the only Black member of Congress at the time.
In the early 1920s, the NAACP began its efforts to pass an anti-lynching bill. Federal hate crime legislation eventually was passed in the 1990s — decades after the civil rights movement.
Two white men, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, were accused but acquitted by a jury composed entirely of white men. Bryant and Milam later told a reporter that they kidnapped and killed Till.
Countryman called Till’s mother’s actions an “extraordinary campaign of shame on the nation.”
In his remarks, Biden acknowledged the struggle to get a law on the books, and spoke about how lynchings were used to terrorize and intimidate Blacks in the United States. More than 4,400 Blacks died by lynching between 1877 and 1950, mostly in the South, he said.
“Lynching was pure terror, to enforce the lie that not everyone, not everyone belongs in America, not everyone is created equal,” he said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.