On Wednesday, after 120 years of failed attempts, Congress finally passed the first federal antilynching law, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act.
Here are nine things you should know about lynching, the legislation, and the murdered teen for whom the law is named after.
1. Lynching is the mob killing of a person suspected of a crime that is done outside of the law. Although the term has become almost synonymous with execution by hanging, lynching can technically take many forms and doesn’t have to end in the death of the victim. But by the 19th century, lynching in the United States came to refer primarily to the murder of black Americans blamed for some crime by white mobs without any official legal authority, especially in the Jim Crow south.
2. From 1882-1968, 4,743 recorded lynchings occurred in the United States Of this total 3,446 victims were black (72.7 percent), while 1,297 (27.3 percent) were white. More than three-fourths of all lynchings (79 percent) occurred in the South. Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929. Mississippi had the highest number with 581, followed by Georgia with 531, and Texas with 493. Most lynchings outside the South were of whites, and usually for such crimes as murder or theft of livestock.
3. As the NAACP notes, five states (Alaska, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut) had no lynchings. Seven states (Arizona, Idaho, Maine, Nevada, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin) had no recorded lynchings of blacks, and in 16 states, a greater number of whites than blacks were lynched (California, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming).
4. One of the most notorious lynchings was the 1955 murder and torture of Emmett Till. Born in 1941, Till grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood in Chicago. In August 1955, at the age of 14, he traveled to Mississippi to spend time with his cousins. Three days after arriving in Money, Mississippi, Till and a group of teenagers entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. Till purchased bubble gum and, in later accounts, was accused of either whistling at, flirting with, or touching the hand of Carolyn Bryant, a white female whose husband, Roy Bryant, owned the store. Four days after the alleged incident at the store, Till was kidnapped from his uncle’s home by Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam. The two men brutally beat the teenager, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a large metal fan, and tossed his body into the Tallahatchie River.
5. When Till’s body was discovered three days later, his face was so mutilated he could only be positively identified by the ring on his finger—a signet ring engraved with his late father’s initials that his mother had given him a day before he left Chicago. His body was sent back to Chicago, and his mother opted for an open casket to show the world how her son was brutally tortured. Tens of thousands of people came during the five days Till’s body was on display at his church. Two black publications, Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender, also published graphic images of the body. Reaction to the murder helped spark the civil-rights movement. Rosa Parks is reported to have said she was thinking about Till when she refused to give up her seat up on a bus in Montgomery Alabama.
6. During the trial, Till’s great uncle, Moses Wright, testified that Bryant and Milam had kidnapped the teenager. Despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt, an all-male, all-white jury—after deliberating a little more than an hour—refused to convict the two men. A few months after their acquittal, Bryant and Milam told the story of how they kidnapped and killed Till to Look magazine. They were paid $4,000 for their story (the equivalent today of $37,600). Because of the double jeopardy law, though, they were unable to retried for the crimes.
7. In 2007, at the age of 72, Carolyn spoke with writer Timothy B. Tyson for his book The Blood of Emmett Till, and said Till’s alleged verbal and physical advances toward her were lies. “That part’s not true,” she told Tyson. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” Tyson says he was contacted by the FBI weeks after his book was published in January 2017. He gave them interview recordings and other research materials that may have led to the reopening of the case. Both men acquitted of the murder, Bryant and Milam, are now dead, but conspiracy or murder charges could be filed if anyone still alive is shown to have been involved.
8. In 1900, Rep. George Henry White of North Carolina, the only African American in Congress at the time, introduced the first federal antilynching legislation. That bill failed, as did the nearly 200 antilynching bills introduced in Congress during the first half of the 20th century. Between 1890 and 1952, seven Presidents petitioned Congress to end lynching. And between 1920 and 1940, the House of Representatives passed three strong antilynching measures, though none passed the Senate. The enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was the closest Congress ever came in the post-Reconstruction era to enacting antilynching legislation.
9. On Wednesday, 65 years after the death of Till, the House passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act by a measure of 410 to 4. The Senate unanimously passed the legislation last year, so this bill will now go to the White House, where President Donald Trump is expected to sign it. The act designates lynching as a federal hate crime punishable by up to life in prison, a fine, or both.