As protests rock cities, Rand Paul holds up passage of anti-lynching bill

This is part of an occasional series of Yahoo News articles and accompanying videos on how the issues America faced in the 1920s — aka “the roaring twenties” — have echoes in our own decade, a century later.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is holding up the passage of an anti-lynching bill with broad bipartisan support — the latest delay in an effort to pass a federal law against lynching that goes back over a century.   

When the Emmett Till Antilynching Act passed the House 410-4 on Feb. 26, lawmakers expected it to pass in the Senate and head to President Trump’s desk within days. A Senate version, the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, had already passed by unanimous consent in December 2018 and again in February 2019, but the House version needed to pass separately. Ordinarily the Senate handles these matters by unanimous consent, but Paul’s objection means the act named for Till, a black teenager who was kidnapped and lynched in Mississippi in 1955, requires a roll call vote, which uses up scarce floor time in the chamber. 

Paul told reporters on Capitol Hill on Wednesday that he wants changes to the bill to narrow the kinds of crimes it covers. 

“For things to pass unanimously there has to be some give and take in order to try to make the language the best we can get it,” Paul said. “We think that lynching is an awful thing that should be roundly condemned and should be universally condemned. I don’t think it’s a good idea to conflate someone who has an altercation where they had minor bruises, with lynching. We think that’s a disservice to those who were lynched in our history, who continue to have, we continue to have these problems. And I think it’s a disservice to have a new 10-year penalty for people who have minor bruising.”

“The bill as written would allow altercations resulting in a cut, abrasion, bruise, or any other injury no matter how temporary to be subject to a 10-year penalty,” Paul later said in a statement from his office. “My amendment would simply apply a serious bodily injury standard, which would ensure crimes resulting in substantial risk of death and extreme physical pain be prosecuted as a lynching.”

Protesters in Minneapolis on May 26 after the death of George Floyd in police custody. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Protesters in Minneapolis on May 26 after the death of George Floyd in police custody. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

“Sen. Paul is working with the sponsors of the bill to make it stronger,” a spokesperson for Paul also told Yahoo News.    

The Senate’s Justice for Victims of Lynching Act was introduced by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. 

The Emmett Till Antilynching Act was introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who worked closely with Harris and Booker’s offices while crafting the bill. It would make lynching a federal crime by establishing it as a new criminal civil rights violation, and would amend federal civil rights law to include provisions on lynching. The bill says that “whoever conspires with another person to violate section 245, 247, or 249 of this title or section 901 of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (42 U.S.C. 3631) shall be punished in the same manner as a completed violation of such section, except that if the maximum term of imprisonment for such completed violation is less than 10 years, the person may be imprisoned for not more than 10 years.” 

“The language of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act is IDENTICAL to the bill that was unanimously approved by the Senate,” Rush tweeted on Tuesday. “The only conclusion I can draw from Rand Paul’s sudden opposition is he has an issue with the House bill being named after Emmett Till.” 

Paul’s hold on the bill, which was first reported by National Journal, comes amid mass protests that are sweeping the U.S. in response to acts of violence against African-Americans, including the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Arbery’s father has called his son’s death a “modern-day lynching,” and Rush believes Arbery’s death, in which three white men have been indicted, could be considered a lynching under his anti-lynching legislation. 

More than 3,000 protesters march in Washington, D.C., calling for an end to lynching, on June 24, 1922. (Getty Images)
More than 3,000 protesters march in Washington, D.C., calling for an end to lynching, on June 24, 1922. (Getty Images)

Lynching has a long, dark legacy in American history. According to the NAACP, there were 4,472 lynchings between 1882 and 1968, most of them involving black people killed at the hands of white mobs. In the post-Reconstruction South, lynching was commonly used to enforce white supremacy. 

The fight for federal anti-lynching legislation goes back over 100 years and involves hundreds of failed attempts. It was pushed vigorously by the NAACP and civil rights activists in the early 20th century, with Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer, R-Mo., finally introducing the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill on April 18, 1918. If passed into law, it would have charged lynch mobs with capital murder, tried lynching cases in federal court and imposed jail time and fines on state and local law enforcement officials who failed to make reasonable efforts to prevent lynchings. After stalling in the House Judiciary Committee for several years, the bill finally passed the House of Representatives on Jan. 26, 1922, and from there it needed passage in the Senate before the president could sign it into law. But with ambivalent support from Senate Republicans and adamant opposition from Southern Democrats, the bill eventually died in the Senate.

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