On the day of George Floyd’s funeral, as American cities continued to fill with protesters demonstrating for Black lives, Congress sought to pass a bill that would make lynching a federal crime. But one man, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R), stood in the way.
In an emotional exchange on the Senate floor Thursday, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) pleaded with Paul to stand down and allow their legislation to pass. The bill, the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, named after the 14-year-old Black teenager who was brutally murdered in 1955, has broad bipartisan support.
“I have had children break down with me this week wondering if this is a country that values their lives as much as white people’s lives,” Booker said, choking up on the Senate floor. “I have had to explain to grown men this week that there is still hope in America ... For one member to yield ... for one day and give America this win. Let us pass this legislation today of all days, let us give a headline tomorrow that will give hope to this country that we can get it right. It may not cure the ills that so many are protesting about but it could be a sign of hope.”
Congress has failed to pass similar anti-lynching legislation repeatedly over the last century. In a separate session last year, the Senate passed this bill unanimously, in a voice vote. The House passed an identical bill this February, and it has sat in the Senate until now.
But on Thursday, Paul objected to the bill, which would make lynching a federal hate crime with an heightened sentencing penalty, because he said it was too broad. It could implicate people who got into a bar fight, or had an altercation that led to “minor bruising,” Paul said, citing an incident in which a Black woman slapped three Jewish woman that the senator said could be wrongly over-sentenced under the bill.
“You think I’m taking great joy in being here? No,” Paul said on the floor. “You think I’m getting any good publicity out of this? No. I will be excoriated by simple-minded people on the internet who think I somehow don’t like Emmett Till or appreciate the history and memory of Emmett Till. I’ll be lectured to by everybody that I have no right to have an opinion on any of these things.”
Paul said he’s been working with Booker’s office for three months to tighten the language in the bill, noting that his objections are closely tied to the debate around mandatory minimums.
Paul offered an amendment to address his concerns, which Harris and Booker called unnecessary. If the Senate were to take up Paul’s amendment, it would further delay passage of the bill by requiring the legislation to go back to the House for yet another vote.
Anti-lynching legislation has volleyed between the House and Senate for decades, making its passage a symbolic gesture in the face of continued racial injustice. Harris called Ahmaud Arbery, the Black man who was shot to death by white neighbors while on a run in Georgia, “a victim of a modern day lynching.”
“There’s no reason for this,” Harris said of Paul’s objection, saying the amendment would put “a greater burden on victims of lynching than is currently required by federal hate crimes law.”
“There is no reason other than cruel and deliberate obstruction on a day of mourning,” she said.
Booker, who has worked with Paul on criminal justice issues in the past, made a heartfelt plea to Paul saying he did not question the senator’s convictions. But still his frustration with the Kentucky Republican was explicit.
“I’m so raw today,” Booker said. “Of all days we are doing this. Of all days we are doing this right now — God, if this bill passed today, what that would mean for America that this body and that body have now finally agreed.”
“I do not need my colleague, the senator from Kentucky, to tell me about one more lynching in this country. I have stood in the museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and watched African American families weeping at the stories of pregnant women lynched in this country and their babies ripped out of them while this body did nothing.”
Paul, however, stood firm.