December 21, 2018
This week Congress passed a criminal justice reform bill. The bill has been touted as the most significant change to the federal criminal justice system in decades. The bill, known as the First Step Act, sits on President Donald Trump’s desk awaiting his signature.
Lost in all the hoopla was a little noted piece of legislation that unanimously passed in the Senate this week - making lynching a federal civil rights crime.
The bill was sponsored by Senator Kamala Harris of California. “This is a meaningful moment for this body,” said New Jersey Senator Corey Booker.
The first anti-lynching bill was introduced in Congress 100 years ago. The bill passed the House but was opposed by southern senators and failed repeatedly. According to the Washington Times, the Senate failed to pass an anti-lynching bill nearly 200 times before this week.
Ironically, the presiding officer for the bill’s floor debate was Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi who was maligned last month for making a joke about a public hanging during her reelection campaign. “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” Hyde-Smith was heard saying during a campaign event. Hyde-Smith did not immediately apologize for her remarks. That may have been a tactical campaign decision in a state that had the highest number of lynchings in the country from 1882 to 1968.
Lynchings were a tool used to oppress freed slaves after the Civil War. They were often committed by mobs who murdered victims with impunity, often joined by law enforcement, sometimes on the steps of the courthouse.
Lynch mobs, particularly in response to alleged black-on-white crime, were rampant in the south during the late 19th and early-20th centuries. Black men were drug from their homes or jail cells and hung by the neck from the nearest tree or lamppost.
The last lynching in this country occurred in Mobile, Alabama, in 1981. Members of the Ku Klux Klan beat and killed Michael Donald, a young African-American man, and hung his body from a tree. Donald was randomly targeted after the trial of a black man accused of killing a white man in Mobile ended in a mistrial.
One of Donald’s killers, Henry Hayes, was sentenced to death and executed in 1997. The execution of Hayes was the first in Alabama since 1913 for a white-on-black crime. It would be the only execution of a Klan member during the 20th century for the murder of an African-American man.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the state that conducted the last public execution in 1936 attended by an estimate 20,000 people, said when asked about the anti-lynching legislation, “I thought we did that years ago.”
A lynching is an extrajudicial act - an execution carried out by mob rule. The color of an accused and victim’s skin also plays a role in state-sanctioned executions. The death penalty in America has some racial inequities.
People of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43 percent of total executions since 1976 and 55 percent of those currently sitting on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit advocacy group. While white victims accounted for approximately one-half of all murder victims, 80 percent of all capital cases involve white victims.
In 2005, the U.S. Senate approved a resolution apologizing for its failure to enact federal anti-lynching legislation. Now 13 years after its apology and nearly 40 years after the last known lynching, Congress has begun to take formal action to end this shameful inaction.
As capital punishment continues to decline in this country will it take the Congress or U.S. Supreme Court another 40 years to acknowledge the arbitrary nature and fallibility of the death penalty?
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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