In 19 December 2018, the United States passed the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act. It is the first American national anti-lynching law. The Bill seeks to address the troubling history of lynching in the United States and prepare for a resurgence of white supremacy. It marks almost 100 years since the first anti-lynching law was put before the American Congress (Parliament). This is a historic victory for the black people of America.
After the abolition of slavery, African Americans tried to find ways to better their lives, by entering into education, politics and business. Many whites were threatened by this and asked for laws to make it harder for black people to vote or hold office. Laws began to be passed mandating segregation between white and blacks in railway travel, workplaces, toilets, and housing. These were the material conditions necessary for lynching to happen on a mass-scale. When black people were segregated and pushed to the periphery, lynching became a tool by white Americans to spread fear in the black community. Lynching is sometimes called the second slavery in America. It started after the first slavery of the African American people. The third is the phase of mass incarceration of black men. Lynching rose in the 1880s, twenty years after the abolition of slavery.
To justify lynching, false stories about victims were spread. Many whites thought that lynching happened when a black man raped a white woman. False news stories and stories reinforced these beliefs. They thought that lynching was a spontaneous reaction of anger and justice. This myth persisted until the valiant efforts of the African-American journalist Ida B. Wells. She studied lynching cases across the country and showed that often lynching was preplanned and done with the approval of local police and business leaders. The majority of cases did not involve accusations of rape of white women. In many cases, it was black women who were lynched. Lynching was often used to terrorise a community, rather than just the individuals and keep African Americans scared.
Her efforts were scaled up by the budding black-led civil rights organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). The NAACP expanded Wells’ work and pushed for anti-lynching legislation. The 1918 Dyer-bill, introduced by Representative Leonidas Dyer, enjoyed large-scale support, but could not pass because opposition kept stalling discussion until the session got over, using a tactic called filibuster. Over the next 50 years, 200 attempts were made to get the bill passed, but all failed.
The movement to end lynching also involved grassroots movements that challenged the policies of segregation and discriminations that came in the 1880s. These movements were successful because they were able to change the foundational causes of lynching. Lynching rates fell from, more than one case every week in 1919, to less than 1 case every year in 1968. The need for a special anti-lynching law had passed for the black community.
From 1971 onwards, when Neoliberal reforms started to take place in America, state policies were changed to ensure greater criminalisation of the black community. The American establishment began to be scared of the Black movement as they started to bring together issues of race and class. Over the years, the American state targeted the black community, by programs that ensured that black people were pushed deeper into poverty, systematically broke their social structure, heavily policed and imprisoned them. Today, more than two-thirds of African American families are single parent families, one-third of African American families are BPL, and one in three black men has spent time in jail.
The effects of these policies were invisible until camera phones became common, and photos and videos of unarmed black people by the police started circulating. One particular death shook the core of society; the killing of an unarmed 17 year old boy, Treyvon Martin. His killer, George Zimmerman, shot and him, claiming him to have suspicious behaviour, might be using drugs and was wearing a sweater that covered his head (which is common attire in that climate). Zimmerman was not convicted because he made a special claim of self-defence, which allows people to shot and kill people that look suspicious. This case highlighted for the American public that such laws, especially when they are unclear, work in favour of whites and against blacks. This led to mass protests in the city of Baltimore in 2015.
Many White supremacists felt that the black people were getting too confident. In the following year, a white supremacist, Dylan Roof, felt he needed to teach them a lesson, and entered black majority church in Charlottesville Virginia, US, and killed nine people, including a pastor of the church and a member of the state legislative assembly. After this tragedy, activists fighting White supremacy demanded to remove symbols and statues of people who fought to defend slavery and racism during the American Civil War be removed.
White Supremacist groups started begun protesting these efforts, leading to a Unite the Right demonstration in Charlottesville. This rally was intended to bring together all White Supremecist groups including Klu Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, pro-slavery secessionist movements and other militant groups. Black rights groups came to peacefully protest their event, but were violently attacked. One of the White supremacist members tried to run over the protesters with his car.
This action highlighted that informal and paralegal networks that caused lynching in the past were on the rise again. This prompted Black rights leaders to demand a law to protect them from lynching. Finally, one century after the Dyer Act was first introduced; the law had finally been passed.
Passing the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act is a victory of a hundred and fifty year long struggle. The movement to criminalise lynching (that is planning or taking part in gang attacks against racial or ethnic minorities) did more to stop lynching then any law could. These movements were so effective that White supremacist groups needed to find new ways to oppress the black people.
Writer is a mathematician and a political analyst.