During the close of February, Black History Month, and the beginning of March, Women’s History Month, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was passed by the U.S. Congress. The bill had been introduced by Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Chicago in the previous congressional session. It had passed the House, overwhelmingly, but died in the Senate. This year, it passed again in the House, by a vote of 422 to 3. It then was passed by unanimous consent in the Senate. With the signature of President Joe Biden, it becomes the law of the land. This is historical because it is the first time in this country’s history that the federal government has voted to criminalize lynchings. It now stands alongside federal hate-crime legislation as a deterrent to the continued destruction of Black lives based upon racial hatred.
The act criminalizes actions by individuals that result in death or serious bodily injury, conspiracies to commit acts that result in death or serious bodily harm, kidnappings or attempted kidnapping that results in the same, and aggravated sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. It came after more than 4,400 recorded racial lynchings over the years.
Although the law carries a maximum penalty of only 30 years, the enactment of the law culminates a work begun by journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells in 1892. She inaugurated a campaign to get Congress to make lynching a federal crime after three Black men in Memphis, who were friends and acquaintances, were taken from a Shelby County jail and lynched. For the next 30 years, using investigative journalism, she reported on hundreds of lynchings across the country. She utilized her own and other newspapers, wrote publications, collaborated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), went on speaking tours at home and abroad, and literally did whatever she could to publicize the thousands of lynchings taking place to get Congress to step forward and criminalize lynchings. It was apparent that the states were not willing to take any serious action to curb it. If charges were ever brought, as in the case of the Emmett Till’s conspirators and murderers, the people were never convicted. Federal action was needed.
Ida B. Wells Barnett devoted a good part of her life to the matter of publicizing the lynching of Black people. It is a bit of ironic justice that the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was passed in the month of March, 91 years after her death and 130 years after the first lynching about which she wrote.
This delay does not equal justice, but does indicate that persistence pays off. Furthermore, it is significant that we can honor this heroine, Ida B. Wells Barnett, this way during Women’s History Month.
In the same breath that we recognize and honor her, we also honor Mamie Till Mobley. We honor her, not because of the loss that she suffered, but because of her courage, genius, and persistence following of what was the greatest loss that one can suffer – the murder of a relative of the first degree.
Many, in fact too many, of the younger generation are not familiar with the story of the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till at the hands of a group of white men, one of whom was the husband of a white woman who claimed that Till had flirted with and wolf whistled at her. The two men who were indicted, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were quickly declared “not guilty.” None of the other perpetrators were even indicted.
Mobley, however, helped re-stoke the fire for a federal anti-lynching bill by insisting on an open-casket funeral for her brutally murdered son, by going on speaking tours to talk about the lynching, and by never letting the events surrounding the murder and trials rest. On several occasions, she encouraged and welcomed investigations into the lynching. She cooperated with journalists and filmmakers who were getting the story out years after the fact. In a manner of speaking, she gave her life to the cause, pursuing justice for Emmett’s lynching.
While that was never completely fulfilled, the bill named after him became law 66 years and 7 months after Emmett’s lynching and 19 years after her heroic efforts. Her mother’s love was poured unceasingly and most productively. Her life definitely needs to be celebrated during this the last week of Women’s History Month.
Singularly and together, Ida B. Wells Barnett and Mamie Till Mobley not only represent but embody a story that cannot be repeated too often. That story is the one of heroic Black women who have often been thrust into roles that seemed impossible to fulfill by either men or women.