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U.S. House To Vote On Anti-Lynching Act — Finally

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Tomorrow the U.S. House could finish work that it began 120 years ago. In that year - 1900 - the country's only black congressman, George Henry White of North Carolina, introduced a bill to make lynching a federal crime. The bill died in committee. Tomorrow the House will vote on a similar bill that would outlaw both lynching in particular and mob killing more broadly. The Senate has already done this, which means the legislation could soon land on President Trump's desk.

Amy Kate Bailey is a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She studied the history of lynching in the United States, and she joins me now.

Hey there. Welcome.

AMY KATE BAILEY: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: So I want to go back to 1900 and George Henry White and just - what was the situation? What were the circumstances that prompted him to introduce this bill?

BAILEY: Yeah. The late 19th and early 20th century were pretty abysmal times in the history of race relations in the United States. The 1890s was definitely the pinnacle of what we consider the lynching era. There were more than a thousand documented lynchings that took place just during that 10-year time span. That was coupled with a rapid political move toward disenfranchisement of the African American male community.

KELLY: I'm trying to imagine what it must have felt like for him. I mentioned he was the only black congressman at the time, so he's making this case to a sea of faces of white lawmakers. Why did it fail?

BAILEY: You know, I think there was an attempt to frame lots of these issues as localized issues, and that, I think, has been an intentional political strategy particularly on the part of representatives from the southern states on a variety of issues.

KELLY: I should note that the measure the House is poised to vote on is formally named the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, named for Emmett Till, the black teenage boy lynched in Mississippi in the 1950s. Why did it take 65 years from that? Why do you think the moment seems to have finally arrived for this legislation to make it through?

BAILEY: I mean, I think as a culture, we have failed to reckon with the history of racist violence in the United States. There were probably close to 5,000 incidents like this that took place in the United States. You know, the scope of that violence is a little mind-boggling. We've underplayed it in our public education systems. We've underplayed it in terms of our understandings of ourselves as a culture and as a society. You know, frankly, this legislation is long overdue.

KELLY: I saw House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer saying something right along those lines when he announced the vote. He put out a statement saying this bill is long overdue, but it's never too late to do the right thing. Is that the way you see it?

BAILEY: Absolutely. I've heard some commentary that this is an unnecessary piece of legislation and that it just opens old wounds and it's merely a symbolic effort, but I think there's nothing wrong with having symbols that stand up and say, we affirm that this kind of violent terrorism is not going to be accepted in our country, in our society. And, frankly, I mean, we still have incidents like the Charleston church massacre, right? We still have instances like the Charlottesville 2017 incidents, where there were people who lost their lives and were intrinsically based on racial dynamics and racial inequality. If we are trying to say that we are beyond this moment in our nation's history, we're fooling ourselves.

KELLY: You're saying this can be both symbolic - both a way of addressing past wrongs but also really, really relevant today in 2020.

BAILEY: Absolutely.

KELLY: That is Amy Kate Bailey. She's a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She joined us via Skype.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROHNE'S "MERU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.