Remarks by Vice President Harris at Signing of H.R. 55, “The Emmett Till Antilynching Act”
4:25 P.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, everyone. Good afternoon.
Michelle, thank you for your powerful words. I was so glad that we had some time in the Oval Office with the President to talk with you about the historic day that we are celebrating but on the shoulders of so many, including your family and you, who have written about it, maintaining your family’s legacy of speaking truth always. So, thank you.
It’s good to see everybody. President Biden, members of Congress, I have to shout out to the CBC, to my fellow Americans: Thank you all. (Applause.)
So, lynching — well, it — we know it’s a stain on the history of our nation.
Since our founding and in particular in the century following the Civil War, thousands of people in states across our nation were tortured and murdered by vigilantes.
They were dragged from their homes. They had ropes wrapped around their necks. They were hanged, burned, drowned, and dismembered — often, as the President said, as their families were forced to watch and as crowds gathered to spectate.
These lynchings were motivated, of course, by racism and meant to cause terror. They were acts committed to secure political and social control.
But they were not designated crimes by the federal government. Lynching was not considered a crime by the federal government.
Legislation to make lynching a federal crime was first introduced in the United States Congress in the year 1900. It failed.
In the 122 years since, antilynching legislation has been introduced to the United States Congress more than 200 times, advanced by leaders such as James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP and, of course, the phenomenal Ida B. Wells — those who courageously knew what had to be done and were undeterred.
And when we speak of Ida B. Wells, let’s understand the courageous nature of that incredible American who used her skill, her profession, her calling as a journalist — as President Biden noted — to help open the eyes of our nation to the terror of lynching, which speaks, of course, to the role that we have known also historically — I’m going off script for a moment — about the importance of the Black press and the importance of making sure that we have the storytellers always in our community who we will support to tell the truth when no one else is willing to tell it. (Applause.)
And so, those heroes who petitioned every president from McKinley to Hoover to support federal legislation.
Antilynching legislation was introduced in the wake of some of these most brutal attacks: after the murder of Mary Turner in 1918, after the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, and James Byrd, Jr. in 1998, and James Craig Anderson in 2011. And it failed again and again.
And again and again, antilynching legislation was reintroduced in the United States Congress by leaders who understood that our past must not and cannot be forgotten, that the truth must be spoken no matter how difficult it is to speak and certainly no matter how difficult it is to hear — leaders who understood that the victims of lynching and their families and all of our society deserve that we recognize the crimes and the injustice of what was occurring and that the people of our nation deserve the protection of a faderal [sic] — federal antilynching law.
When I served in the United States Senate, it was a profound honor to sponsor, with Cory Booker, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act.
And I want to say a thing about Cory Booker — I’m going to talk about him in front of his face. (Laughter.) Cory Booker, I have had the privilege of working with, and he is a man of uncommon courage, unmatched moral clarity, and an unwavering commitment to doing what is right.
Thank you, Cory Booker. (Applause.)
And I also want to recognize and thank Senator Tim Scott, whose partnership, of course, helped us pass this legislation.
And with Congressman Bobby Rush — (applause) — where is he? There you are — who kept this fight alive for so many years in the United States Congress. Congressman Rush, you have dedicated your career to guiding our nation toward justice, and I thank you. (Applause.)
And thank you to so many other leaders who are gathered here who helped us reach this very important day, leaders who witnessed the brutal reality of lynching — such as Ollie Gordon and Reverend Wheeler Parker, cousins of Emmett Till — for whom the stories of these crimes are not lines in a history book but vivid memories.
So, today, we are gathered to do unfinished business: to acknowledge the horror in this part of our history, to state unequivocally that lynching is and always has been a hate crime, and to make clear that the federal government may now prosecute these crimes as such.
Lynching is not a relic of the past. Racial acts of terror still occur in our nation. And when they do, we must all have the courage to name them and hold the perpetrators to account. (Applause.)
And with that, I will close by saying this: I believe that so often — and it has been said — the victims of lynching were targeted — and let’s be clear about this — because they were working to build a better America. That’s what they were doing.
It was in everybody’s best interest what they were doing. But unfortunately, the cowards couldn’t see, didn’t understand.
Those folks who were killed — they were business owners, creating economic opportunity in their community by which all would prosper and benefit. They were teachers, educating the next generation of America’s leaders. They were activists who were defending the sacred freedom to vote.
So, today, as we recognize them, as we recognize our history, let us also be here gathered to recommit ourselves to that unfinished business, as well; to continuing to fight for freedom, for opportunity, and justice for all.
May God bless you, and may God bless America. Thank you all. (Applause.)
END 4:33 P.M. EDT