The Senate’s lone black members, Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), introduced a bill Friday that would make lynching a federal hate crime.
The bill is similar to one introduced earlier this month by Rep. Bobby Rush, Democratic congressman from Ill., which has 35 co-sponsors from the Congressional Black Caucus. The legislation comes amidst concerns about an increase in hate crimes and racist demonstrations that have rocked the country since Donald Trump took office.
But as the New York Times notes, lawmakers have attempted to bring forward bills targeting lynching, specifically, for more than 100 years.
“Nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress from 1882 to 1986. None were approved,” the paper writes.
The new law would make lynching a federal offense punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison. As with other hate crimes, lynching would be a separate charge from murder or assault, and could be layered on to other charges.
“This sends a very powerful message,” said Sen. Booker, upon introducing the bill. “Literally thousands of African-Americans were being lynched throughout history, and the Senate never stepped up to pass any legislation to stop this heinous, despicable behavior.”
Lynchings are a core part of America’s long history of racial animus and violence. According to the NAACP, more than 4,700 lynches were recorded between 1882 and 1968 alone; nearly 3/4 of lynchings targeting black people (3,446 to be exact). Most of these happened in the South, with white mobs lynching black people for all manner of “crimes.” As important as the violence was the public spectacle of it all, meant to intimidate and terrorize black communities.
As the NAACP site notes, this number is low—many lynches were never recorded.
According to the Times, 16 other senators, including Bernie Sanders (I-V.T.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have co-sponsored the proposed legislation. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—who claims he thought anti-lynching legislation already existed—publicly pronounced support for such a bill.
“I thought we did that many years ago,” McConnell said earlier this month on Sirius XM. “I hadn’t thought about it, I thought that was done back during L.B.J. or some period like that.”
Thus far, the only thing the Senate has ever done around lynching was apologize—which they did in 2005—to lynching victims and their descendants. While lawmakers also apologized for never enacting anti-lynching legislation, they still failed to push through a bill targeting the brutal practice.
Many Americans are unaware or choose not to acknowledge this brutal practice—only this year did the country’s first memorial for lynching victims open, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. The memorial is the first of its kind dedicated to the victims of white supremacy in America.
Rep. Rush, in introducing his bill in the House, emphasized the present urgency of having lynching legislation.
“While many may argue that lynching has been relegated to history, you only need to look at the events in Charlottesville last year to be reminded that the racist and hateful sentiments that spurred these abhorrent crimes are still prevalent in today’s American society,” he said.