By Senator Lena C. Taylor
Signed by President Joe Biden on March 29, 2022, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was a long time coming. The moment was bittersweet. Scanning the photos of onlookers gathered in the White House Rose Garden, the mixture of attendees yielded the unsettling occasion that was the impetus for the event. Also telling was who was not there.
The bill’s namesake was a 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched in Money, Mississippi in 1955. Accused of whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, Till was visiting family for the summer when his horrific murder occurred. Falsely accused by Bryant, the Chicago, Illinois teenager was dragged from his relative’s home in the dead of night. (In 2017, Bryant admitted that she lied.)
According to History.com, Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his brother “made Emmett carry a 75-pound cotton gin fan to the bank of the Tallahatchie River and ordered him to take off his clothes. The two men then beat him nearly to death, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head and then threw his body, tied to the cotton gin fan with barbed wire, into the river.” (Neither man was convicted of Till’s murder, but both later bragged about killing him.)
Upon learning of her son’s death, Mamie Till-Mobley had her son’s body returned to Chicago. She insisted on an open casket, in order that the world could see what had been done to her son. More than 50,000 people streamed through the line to see the mutilated teen. The gruesome manner of his death galvanized the Black community and thrust his mother into a fight that would last until her death in 2002. Until her last breath at the age of 81, Mamie worked to secure justice for her son. She should have been standing there to witness a U.S. President sign an anti-lynching bill. The hard truth is that countless lives were outlived by the refusal of the American government to do the right thing on the issue of lynching.
As was noted by Vice President Kamala Harris, during the bill ceremony, people had been trying to outlaw lynching in Congress since the year 1900. With substantial data to underscore the problem, there was one testament to that fact that simply could not be denied.
In the crowd on that chilly March afternoon, a woman stood near Biden in a beautiful leaf green coat. The rich color drew your eyes to her immediately and you knew instinctively, she was someone significant. Scouring social media and media outlets, I learned that the woman was Michelle Duster. In 1898, Duster’s great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, met with then U.S. President William McKinley at the White House to advocate for an anti-lynching law. Her work would span seven presidential administrations. She should have been there to see the bill passed.
Over the years, many have carried the torch of the early crusaders who fought diligently to stop this gruesome practice that dates back to at least 1882. Countless names, legislators and advocates have stepped in to fill the gap, ensuring that even with 200 failed bills, they would get this legislation signed into law. But you can’t help but ask, “What took so long?” Most likely, one sorry excuse after another.