Standing in the White House rose garden Tuesday, President Joe Biden reached back and touched Michelle Duster’s hand as he asked her to remind him of the year that her great-grandmother first visited the president’s home in her crusade against lynching.
“1898,” she told him.
That year, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a native of Holly Springs, Miss., traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with President William McKinley and urge him to support federal legislation outlawing lynching. Between 1877 and 1950, violent white mobs and organized killings claimed the lives of over 4,400 Black Americans, with Mississippi boasting the most of any state, including most if not every one of Mississippi’s 82 counties.
Wells-Barnett, an investigative journalist and civil rights activist, spent the remainder of her life fighting for an antilynching law across seven presidential administrations. On Tuesday, 124 years after her first visit to the White House, Wells-Barnett’s efforts finally paid off as her great-granddaughter, Duster, stood next to the president while he signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law.
‘Racial Hate Isn’t An Old Problem’
Prominent Black leaders, including U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, and civil-rights activists, joined Biden for the ceremony as he acknowledged that while most lynchings and race massacres happened in the South, many took places all across the country.
“Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone belongs in America—that not everyone is created equal,” Biden said. “…Terror, not just in the dark of night, but in broad daylight. Innocent men, women and children, hung by nooses from trees, bodies burned, drowned and castrated. Their crimes? Trying to vote. Trying to go to school. Trying to own a business or preach the gospel. False accusations of murder, arson, and robbery. Simply being Black.”
The new law, known as the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, is named for the 14-year-old Black child whose brutal murder in Money, Miss., in 1955 propelled the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Under it, anyone who “conspires” to commit a lynching that results in “death or serious bodily injury” would face up to 30 years in prison.
U.S. House Rep. Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat whose congressional district includes much of Chicago’s south side, sponsored the bill. Members of Till’s family attended the White House signing ceremony.
“To the Till family, I remain in awe of your courage to find purpose through your pain,” Biden said Tuesday. “… But the law is not just about the past. It’s about the present and our future as well, from the bullets in the back of Ahmaud Arbery to countless other acts of violence, countless victims known and unknown, and the same racial hatred that brought that mob carrying torches out of the fields of Charlottesville just a few years ago. Racial hate isn’t an old problem. It’s a persistent problem.”
The president praised Wells for her effort to expose the realities of lynching.
“In her words, her courage, her conviction, she was trying to prevent the murders of Emmett Till and Ahmaud Arbery and so many others,” the president said. “Ida B. Wells once said, ‘The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon the wrong.’ That’s what all of you have done gathering here, including Ida B. Wells’ great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster.”
‘Racial Acts of Terror Still Occur’
After taking the podium, Duster thanked Biden and noted that Congress has tried and failed to pass a federal antilynching bill more than 200 times since the first attempt in 1900.
“And 17 years ago, in 2005, my brother Dan (Duster) spoke at the Senate press conference where they issued an apology for not passing the legislation,” she said. “But we finally stand here today, generations later, to witness this historic moment of President Biden signing the Emmett Till Antilynching bill into law.”
At the time of the U.S. Senate’s 2005 resolution “apologizing to the victims of lynching and the descendants of those victims for the failure of the Senate to enact antilynching legislation,” neither of Mississippi’s U.S. senators, who were then Republicans Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, signed on as cosponsors.
As she finished her remarks, Duster introduced Vice President Kamala Harris, whom she described as “someone my great grandmother would be especially proud of.” Harris praised Wells-Barnett, saying she used her “calling as a journalist … to help open the eyes of our nation to the terror of lynching.”
“That speaks volumes about the importance of the Black press and the importance of making sure we have storytellers always in our communities to tell the truth when no one else is willing to tell it,” the vice president said.
“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 in 1998 and James Craig Anderson in 2011,” Harris said.
Anderson died after a group of white teens in Rankin County, Miss., robbed, beat and ran over him in a Jackson hotel parking lot in 2011. A witness said one of the perpetrators exclaimed, “white power!” as they left.
“Lynching is not a relic of the past,” Harris said Tuesday. “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.”