Image: Portrait of Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931), more commonly known as Ida B. Wells. Photographer taken by Mary Garrity in 1893. Photo courtesy of GPA Photo Archive. CC BY-NC 2.0. 

There has been a long road to the passage of an antilynching law,  paved by scores of scholars, activists, and politicians between 1882 until President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act – an act that establishes lynching as a federal hate crime – into law on March 29, 2022. The Act named after fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, murdered on August 28, 1955, in Money, Mississippi, by two white men for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Till was savagely beaten, had an eye gouged out, and was shot before his body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River tied to a cotton gin fan. 

The brutal murder of Emmett Till was far from a singular act of racial terror. With the exception of four states, lynching was pervasive throughout the United States. Between 1882 and 1968, scholars suspect 4,742 people were lynched in the U.S.– with the vast majority of them being Black men, women, and children. The victims of lynchings were often tortured, mutilated, burned alive, and hanged. Lynching became a spectacle and often a social gathering for white families, frequently commemorated through photo postcards . In its report on the Emmitt Till Antilynching Act, Congress found that 99% of those who committed lynchings went unpunished by state and local officials. The Act is monumental because it is the first antilynching act that has not died in congress.

The racial terror of lynching did not go unopposed. Scholars, activists, politicians, and organizations worked to end the murders of Black people that plagued the country. One of the most prominent anti-lynching activists was Ida B. Wells. Wells was a journalist and scholar who dedicated a large part of her life to her campaign to expose the horrors of lynching. Wells was a journalist for the Memphis, Tennessee-based newspaper Free Speech. Following the brutal lynching of three Black proprietors of The People’s Grocery in a suburb of Memphis – Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart – Wells dedicated herself to researching and documenting lynching. One of her findings was that Black men were often lynched following allegations that they had raped white women. On May 21, 1892, Wells published an editorial in the Free Speech stating:

Nobody in this section believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men assault white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will over-reach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women. 

Wells wasn’t in Memphis when the editorial was published – but following its publication, the office of the Free Speech was destroyed, and Wells was threatened with death should she return to Memphis. In her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, Wells writes: “they had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth. I felt that I owed it to myself and my race to tell the whole truth” (54). 

Wells shared the truth about lynching in her publications Southern Horrors and A Red Record. In A Red Record, Wells tabulates statics and provides detailed descriptions of lynchings that occurred across the United States. Wells makes the case that since Emancipation, there had been a series of three excuses made by whites to explain lynching. She contends that the first of the excuses were for whites to stamp out race riots – but that no such riots ever materialized. The second excuse was the need to suppress the Black vote – however, once that was accomplished, Wells argues that whites had to come up with another reason. The third excuse whites landed on to continue savagely lynching Black people was to protect white women from being assaulted by Black men. Unfortunately, this excuse was not substantiated by the data that Wells collected. Some of Wells’ most important triumphs were exposing the lies that undergirded whites’ reasons for lynching Black people and getting others to rally around her crusade against lynching.

Black organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Anti-Lynching Crusaders played vital roles in pushing anti-lynching legislation in the early 20th century. Founded in 1909, the NAACP quickly took up the anti-lynching cause, creating a special committee focusing on lynching in 1916. In 1922, Black women in the NAACP formed the Anti-lynching Crusaders, an organization with the slogan “a million women united to stop lynching.” 

The NAACP and the Anti-lynching Crusaders advocated for the passage of the Dyer Anti-lynching Bill – the first and only anti-lynching bill (before the Emmitt Till Act) to be voted on by the Senate. The bill was brought forth and named after congressman Leonidas Dyer in 1918. The bill stated that any person who participated in the lynching of a person should be charged with a felony and imprisoned for life or no less than five years. The bill also stated that any state or county officer who failed to protect the life of someone in danger of being lynched by a mob or who conspired with a mob to lynch someone should be found guilty of a felony and face up to five years imprisonment and/or be fined up to $5,000. Additionally, counties that failed to prosecute those participating in lynching would be fined up to $10,000 by the federal government. The bill passed the house on January 26, 1922 – but it ultimately died when it didn’t pass the Senate in December 1922 due to a filibuster. A large part of what impeded the Dyer bill was southern democrats’ arguments for states’ rights. 

Movements against lynching have a long history – a history that many different defeats have marked. Between 1882 and the passage of the Emmett Till Antilynching act this year, seven sitting presidents have called for anti-lynching legislation, and nearly 200 anti-lynching bills have been introduced to congress. The triumph of the Emmett Till act is a monument to the tireless work of activists like Ida B. Wells and organizations like the NAACP and the Anti-lynching Crusaders. Surely, the Act does not shield Black people from the racial violence and terror they face every day – but it is a step in the right direction.

Dr. Aisha A. Upton-Azzam earned her PhD from the University of Minnesota in 2021 and is currently an assistant professor at Susquehanna University. Her research agenda is broadly centered on race, gender, and social movements – with a specific focus on Black women’s activism.