U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina has accomplished something that other senators have tried and failed to do for more than 100 years.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the Charleston Republican’s bill to make lynching a federal hate crime for the first time.
“Today, the Senate sent a strong signal that this nation will not stand for the hate and violence spread by those with evil in their hearts,” Scott said. “I look forward to this important legislation ending up on the president’s desk for signature.”
The anti-lynching bill is a historic step for the Senate, which has avoided addressing the subject despite repeated proposals, dating back to the 1800s.
Scott introduced the bill last year with the Senate’s only two other African-American members — U.S. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California.
Both Booker and Harris are seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.
But Republican Scott’s involvement brought bipartisan support to the bill, long a civil rights priority. Among the co-sponsors signing on was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The bill passed the Senate last December, but it didn’t come up for a vote in the then-GOP-controlled U.S. House before the end of the congressional session in January. It was passed the Senate again Thursday, and now will be taken up by the now-Democratic-controlled U.S. House.
Dating back to the 1800s, more than 4,000 African-Americans were lynched, according to estimates by the Equal Justice Initiative. At least 160 recorded lynchings occurred in South Carolina between 1882 and 1968.
But racially motivated violence isn’t a thing of the past.
In urging the Senate to adopt the measure, Booker pointed to the recent attack on actor Jussie Smollett in Chicago.
“Justice for the victims of lynching has been too long denied, and as we look forward we must collectively in this body make a strong, unequivocal statement,” Booker said.
Scott and Booker have collaborated on other measures during their six years together in the Senate, including Scott’s signature “Opportunity Zone” legislation, meant to create incentives for investment in underserved communities. That idea passed into law in 2017 as part of President Donald Trump’s tax overhaul.
By the New York Times’ count, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress from 1882 to 1986.
None were approved.
Southern states often resisted efforts to take federal action against lynching, in which mostly African-American victims were murdered without due process after being accused of crimes or for violating the social norms of segregation.
The victims often publicly were killed by mobs, with the tacit approval of local and state authorities. Only seldom were the killers prosecuted.
“Lynchings were acts of violence. They were horrendous acts of violence, and they were motivated by racism,” California’s Harris said in supporting the bill. “With this bill, we finally have a chance to speak the truth about our past and make clear that these hateful acts should never happen again.”
If the bill becomes law, lynching would be punishable by life in prison, in addition to any state-level murder charges.