WASHINGTON — President Biden on Tuesday signed a bill making lynching a federal crime, for the first time explicitly criminalizing an act that had come to symbolize the grim history of racism in the United States.
“Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone, not everyone belongs in America, not everyone is created equal,” Mr. Biden said, speaking to civil rights leaders and others in the Rose Garden of the White House.
Moments after Mr. Biden signed the law — named for Emmett Till, the Black boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 — he described the atrocity that he said was carried out against 4,400 Blacks between 1877 and 1950.
“Terror, to systematically undermine hard, hard fought civil rights. Terror, not just in the dark of the night, but in broad daylight. Innocent men, women and children hung by nooses from trees,” he said. “Bodies burned and drowned and castrated. Their crimes? Trying to vote, trying to go to school, to try and own a business or preach the gospel.”
The president’s signature ended more than 100 years of failed efforts by the federal government to specifically outlaw lynching. The bill, which makes lynching punishable by up to 30 years in prison, was passed by the House in February with only three lawmakers opposed, and passed the Senate without objection on Monday.
The Murder of Emmett Till
In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, was kidnapped, tortured and killed in Mississippi after he allegedly whistled at a white woman.
Legislation to criminalize lynching was first introduced in 1900, and again in subsequent years, but it was repeatedly blocked, including by Southern senators during the Jim Crow era. Lawmakers failed more than 200 times to get it passed. In 2005, the Senate formally apologized for that record.
“It failed again and again and again and again,” Vice President Kamala Harris said Tuesday, noting the history-making moment.
Ms. Harris sponsored the new law with Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, when she was still in the Senate. But she also praised Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina; and Representative Bobby L. Rush, Democrat of Illinois, who had spent years on the effort.
Both Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris gave credit to Ida B. Wells, a Black journalist who fought lynching in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and became one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. One of her descendants spoke at the event Tuesday.
“She carefully chronicled names, date, locations and excuses used to justify lynchings. She wrote articles and pamphlets and gave speeches about the atrocities,” said Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ms. Wells. “Despite losing everything, she continued to speak out across this country and Britain about the violence and terror of lynching.”
Ms. Duster recounted how Ms. Wells had visited President William S. McKinley in the White House in 1898 to urge him to make lynching a federal crime — to no avail.
“We finally stand here today, generations later, to witness this historic moment of President Biden signing the Emmett Till anti-lynching bill into law,” she said.
Mr. Biden said he hoped the law would help in the fight against hate and racism in the country. But he acknowledged that it would be an ongoing fight.
“Hate never goes away,” he said. “It only hides. It hides under the rocks. Given just a little bit of oxygen, it comes roaring back out, screaming. What stops it is all of us, not a few. All of us have to stop it.”