Chicago teenager Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Mississippi when a woman accused him of “harassment”. In the white woman’s version, the boy – who was black – would have whistled in her direction. Till was then kidnapped, beaten and brutally murdered, his body thrown into a river and sunk by a metal fan that was tied around his neck.
Two men were arrested in connection with this murder, but were acquitted by an all-white jury. At Till’s funeral, his mother Mami Till insisted on leaving the casket open to publicly expose the violence inflicted on her son.
This tragic case in US history took place in 1955, but justice for Till and his family didn’t come until 2022, when Joe Biden finally signed the law making lynching a federal hate crime.
“It was almost 120 years of waiting,” he told Brazil de facto the writer and historian Philip Dray, author of several books on the subject.
According to him, this delay in classifying lynching as a crime is not a mere chance – and there are strong racial components in it. “The number of lynchings in the US, starting around the 1880s, 1890s, was almost one every two days, basically African Americans. It was what they called the Scourge of the South,” he says.
The geographical reference of these acts of violence follows the route of slavery – and prejudice. The southern states of the country are the ones that most abused the slave regime, and those that fought against the end of the racial segregation law. It is not surprising, therefore, that Till was murdered in just one of these states, and that these were the states that opposed the criminalization of lynching.
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Although it falls under the umbrella of hate crimes, Dray explains that there is an important difference to be made. “Lynching is when two or more people take the law into their own hands, therefore challenging the legal course of a case. A hate crime can often be ‘random’, motivated by religion or race. In lynching, is something premeditated, which may or may not be linked to other prejudices”, he says.
Barbaric acts like this did not happen in the silence of the night, as the writer recalls. “There was the so-called spectacle lynching, carried out in broad daylight, in front of thousands of people.” Making this violence a real “show” was a way of promoting certain ideals of superiority of race, sex and imposing other social norms.
According to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an Alabama-based nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting racial inequality, racially motivated lynchings killed nearly 2,000 black men, women and children during the Reconstruction era, 1865 to 1865. 1876.
In 2015, EJI researchers released another document, counting more than 4,400 lynchings between 1877 and 1950. More recently, a new study entitled “Reconstruction in America: Racial Violence After the Civil War” Racial after the Civil War), brings the total death toll from lynchings between 1865 and 1950 to nearly 6,500.
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Before Joe Biden signed the bill that criminalizes lynching, accused of this barbaric practice were penalized for other crimes, such as intentional murder. Now, under the new guidelines, lynching suspects face up to 30 years in prison. “It is a symbolic victory, because the penalty itself will not necessarily be more severe, but it will have a different name – and a different weight. It was a wait of more than a century”, celebrates the researcher.
Also according to Dray, this addition to the US penal code is a direct reflection of popular pressure, which has dragged on for years in the strength of the movement. Black Lives Matter. “I think during the pandemic, people reached their limit because a lot of videos and complaints started to circulate. We had the scandal about the hire of black men and cases like Brianna Taylor.”
Citing other cases, such as that of George Floyd, who took a crowd to the streets, Dray explains that the criminalization of lynching is a first step, but that there is still much to be done: “when it comes to social and racial justice, we are indebted to our national accountability”.
Editing: Arturo Hartmann