By Elinor Tatum | Word In Black
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Those are the words immortalized by Billie Holiday when she sang “Strange Fruit” for the first time in 1939. It became a protest song that captured the wicked reality of hate in America.
What is hate? While it is an emotion, it is also an act. An act that has come to define so much of what we see in the day to day of life here on earth. We see the outcroppings of hate all around us — the everyday reminders that, although we have come very far, we still have even farther to go. But this week, hate lost one battle. Finally, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act awaits President Biden’s signature.
In February, the bill passed in the House with a 422-3 vote, and on Monday, it was unanimously passed by the Senate.
We can’t say it is too little, too late. But we can say it is late. So very late.
Emmett Till will forever be remembered because of the strength and fortitude of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and the Black press. Mainstream media was interested in the story at the beginning, but that interest, or should we say curiosity, quickly waned. But the Black press never forgot Emmett Till. His killing hung heavy in the hearts and minds of Black Americans. For some, it was that Emmett could have been their son, their brother, their nephew, or the boy next door. For others, it was the sheer cruelty of the act and the lack of justice for a 14-year-old boy.
Over the 65-plus years since his lynching, Emmett Till’s case has come in and out of the public eye. However, it has been the one that nearly everyone can point to when it comes to talking about lynching in America. But the fact is, Emmett Till was just one of thousands. According to NAACP records, 4,743 people were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968 — and there are undoubtedly more cases that weren’t documented.
Lynching is not merely a remnant of America’s history. We have the modern-day lynchings of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, in 1998; Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia in 2020; and George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2020. And who can forget the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in 2012?
These are just a few of the hundreds, I mean thousands, of men, women, and children that have been victims of racial terrorism in America. Yet it has taken over 100 years for a bill to pass that makes it a federal hate crime.
These are just a few of the thousand, of men, women, and children that have been victims of racial terrorism in America. Yet it has taken over 100 years for a bill to pass that makes it a federal hate crime.
Over 200 anti-lynching bills have been introduced and have failed over the last century. We came close in 2020 when H.R. 35 was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, but it went no further.
But finally — after four years of hate being spewed from the White House itself, the halls of the Capitol defiled on January 6, 2021, and an election fueled by the same hate that created the culture of lynching in this country — we have a federal antilynching bill that has passed both the House and the Senate. And now it just needs the president’s signature.
But the fact that it took this long begs the question as to why? We can’t say it is too little, too late. But we can say it is late. So very late. So late that thousands of our brethren have been slain by the hand of hate mongers killed with rarely any reprimand or retribution, so many times behind the shield of a badge.
Maybe with this passage of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, we will see a change. Maybe we will see justice. Maybe now, maybe…
Elinor Tatum is the publisher of The Amsterdam News
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” — Shirley Chisholm
Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.