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House Approves Bill Making Lynching A Federal Crime


Here in Washington today, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to make lynching a federal hate crime. That is something that supporters say has been tried nearly 200 times before in Congress, never successfully.


AL GREEN: This piece of legislation is more than a hundred years in the making.

KELLY: Texas Democrat Al Green there reflecting on the significance of the moment. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales joins us now from Capitol Hill.

Hey, Claudia.


KELLY: Well, let me let you reflect on the significance of the moment. What was the mood there before the vote?

GRISALES: Oh, it was a very emotional day. Lawmakers highlighted this painful history, where the U.S. saw more than 4,000 cases of lynching from the late 1800s up until the 1960s. But even though the focus was on the past with this legislation, it was also focused on the present. California Democrat Karen Bass says hate crimes are still an issue today.


KAREN BASS: Even today, periodically, you hear news stories of nooses being left on college campuses, worker locker rooms to threaten and terrorize African Americans.

GRISALES: So it was one of many remarkable moments today. In another, we saw the lead Republican on the House Judiciary Committee - this is Doug Collins of Georgia - praise the panel's chairman, Jerry Nadler, for bringing light to this issue. And we have to remember that these two individuals were on opposing sides during this difficult impeachment battle. But Collins acknowledged that lynching has a painful history in his home state and it was time to make a change here.

KELLY: Interesting - bipartisan moment is not something we see a lot of these days...

GRISALES: Exactly.

KELLY: ...On Capitol Hill. How did this effort come together then?

GRISALES: So the sponsor of this bill, Illinois Democrat Bobby Rush, told me that the Reverend Jesse Jackson approached him about 18 months ago and asked him if he knew that lynching wasn't a federal crime. And he said he didn't know that, so he moved to file the legislation soon after. But he said his journey began even before that. He said as a child, his mother shared an image from Jet magazine showing a young man, Emmett Till. He was lynched in Mississippi in the 1950s, and Rush said this changed his world view. And his bill is named after Till. And I talked to Rush about all this. I should note he is soft-spoken. His vocal cords were damaged as a result of illness, but it was an emotional telling. Let's take a listen.

BOBBY RUSH: Emmett Till in that casket launched the civil rights movement here in America.

GRISALES: So Rush called it an act of terrorism. That's what he equated lynching to, and he says it needs to be repudiated and said it's never too late to repudiate evil.

KELLY: Is there something particular about this moment? Never too late, but why now?

GRISALES: So some supporters say it's black history month, and this is the right time to do this, finally. And we should note the theme this year is the power of the African American vote. And so we're hearing a lot of that this week as we see the Democratic primary ramp up in South Carolina.

KELLY: OK, so the vote today - we said it was in the House. What happens next before this legislation might become law?

GRISALES: So this specific House bill must be heard in the Senate chamber before it can go to the president's desk. We should note that the Senate has passed similar legislation. I caught up with California Democrat Kamala Harris, who sponsored this legislation, on the path forward. Let's take a listen.

KAMALA HARRIS: It represents the thousands of lives that were the subject of extreme violence and criminal activity.

GRISALES: So she and others are confident this could get through the Senate floor in the coming days or weeks and that President Trump will sign it.

KELLY: NPR's Claudia Grisales reporting there from the Capitol.

Thank you.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.