Understanding the ‘Historic’ Anti-Lynching Bill — And Efforts to Amend It

Policing reforms and criminal justice measures are now being debated in Congress. When Senator Rand Paul sought to amend an anti-lynching bill, he faced a firestorm of criticism.

By Josh Shepherd Published on June 11, 2020

In the wake of protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, U.S. lawmakers are grappling with potential policing reforms.

One key policy has been adopted into both Republican and Democratic proposals: the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, which would make lynching a federal crime.

“There have been many attempts to pass a federal lynching bill,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. “It’s historic to have a lynching bill that has come this far and is potentially on the verge of passing.”

Last year, the three current U.S. Senators who are black — Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Tim Scott — jointly introduced an anti-lynching bill. That bill passed in the Senate last February. On February 26, 2020, a version of that bill passed in the U.S. House.

More than 4,400 African American men, women, and children were lynched by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. Nearly 200 past attempts to criminalize lynching have failed in Congress, according to the bill’s current text.

With such difficult history as its backdrop, any objections or amendments to the bill have been met with swift public backlash. Two prominent libertarian House members have been roundly criticized for their votes against it. More recently, Senator Rand Paul, R.-Ky., has as well.

 

On June 4, Paul’s amendment to the bill failed in a dramatic Senate floor showdown. “Senator Paul indicated that he wanted to strengthen the lynching bill rather than oppose it,” said Staver.

“His views have been misrepresented by the media, just like Liberty Counsel’s position was last year,” he added. “We need to make sure [this bill] actually has teeth and that it applies to everyone.”

Standing Up for the Rights of All

“Judeo-Christian principles hold that all people are created in the image of God,” said Staver. “We begin with that, and we have to build upon that. All people are entitled to dignity and respect.”

The anti-lynching bill is named after Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. Till had been accused of threatening a white woman. Over 50 years later, she admitted her story had been fabricated.

Till’s mother chose to give her son an open-casket funeral, and media published images of his unrecognizable body scarred by violence. This horrifically tragic story became a civil-rights rallying cry.

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Since its opening in 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has placed on display the casket Till had lain in.

Echoing many Christian leaders today, Staver believes such events must not be forgotten. “This anti-lynching bill arose out of difficult, painful history,” he said. “Certainly, ethnic discrimination continues to exist. In [addition] to legal changes, our nation needs a cultural shift and cultural education.”

Last year, Staver’s group Liberty Counsel, a public interest legal firm based near Orlando, Fla., opposed a radically different version of the anti-lynching bill.

“When you actually read the original federal lynching bill, it only applied to certain categories,” he said. “That’s the reason Liberty Counsel opposed it.”

Mainstream Media Misinterprets Minor Objections

Earlier this week, Senator Rand Paul wrote a detailed response after his hometown newspaper misreported what occurred with the current bill on the Senate floor.

“Not only did I not ‘block’ the bill [as reported],” stated Paul. “I actually sought the Senate’s immediate consideration and passage of the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act with an amendment.”

As clear from his amendment, Paul sought a high degree of specificity in the proposed law. He repeated concerns from his libertarian House colleagues, who voted against the bill. “Prosecutors already have enough blank checks,” stated Paul. “I do not intend on giving them another one.”

Mat Staver, Esq.

Staver views the media mobbing of Paul as a repeat of what his group faced last year.

“Liberty Counsel is opposed to lynching, period,” he said. “The media claimed we wanted to remove LGBT [identified persons] from the bill and not give them protection from lynching. It was preposterous, but they still ran with that narrative.”

He warned that poorly written legislation could veer close to legislating ‘thought crimes,’ which he views as a dangerous precedent.

“The absurdity of the original bill was that you could lynch certain people,” said Staver. “And, if they didn’t fall in a certain category, it wouldn’t be a federal crime. If somebody is going to lynch you, how can anybody argue that that’s right — no matter what your motivation is.”

Liberty Counsel has not taken a position on the current bill, which does not list protected categories.

“When this bill came back again this year, NBC News ran with that same narrative,” he said. “Despite the fact that we contacted them, they wouldn’t change their news story.”

Reforming Law, Transforming Culture

Current protests are not the only framework for advocacy on the anti-lynching bill. The First Step Act, passed in the closing days of 2018, has resulted in thousands of incarcerated people having their sentences reduced.

“We made some historic strides with regards to the criminal justice reform bill that passed, and there’s always more that can be done.” – Mat Staver

“We made some historic strides with regards to the criminal justice reform bill that was passed within the last year and a half,” said Staver. “And there’s always more that can be done.”

Paul supported the bill, which reflected principles of restorative justice. “For too long, Congress ignored the impact of our system’s harsh penalties,” he stated. “[They] turned a blind eye as mandatory minimum sentences led to the problem of over-criminalization and mass incarceration.”

Studies have shown that ethnic minorities, particularly black men, are disproportionately incarcerated. Addressing this issue has found cultural resonance in the current moment.

“We passed the First Step Act to begin to fix some of the racial disparities in criminal justice,” stated Paul. His colleague Senator Tim Scott is currently leading the GOP effort to draft policing reforms.

In recent weeks, people of faith have taken action to right injustice. Some have participated in protests, some have led prayer gatherings, and others have engaged tough questions on difficult issues.

Staver urges believers to take an active stance. “The church has a lot to say about justice,” he said. “We need to see it from God’s perspective, that he created each one of us as unique and precious in his sight.”

 

A graduate of the University of Colorado, Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy issues for media outlets including The Stream and The Federalist. Find him on Twitter and follow The Stream @Streamdotorg.

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