The impetus driving an anti-lynching bill

Senate passage of a bill defining lynching as a hate crime is long in coming. But if a new Congress in 2019 can finally address this brutal practice, it will at least highlight how moral progress is made.

Visitors look at steel columns bearing the names of lynching victims at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.

New laws about justice are often a lagging indicator of the moral progress already made in a society. The best example may be a bill passed by the Senate in the final days of 2018.

The bill would make lynching a federal hate crime for the first time. This practice of murder by mob rule, which was directed mainly against blacks as a form of racist terror, ended decades ago in the United States. At the least, final approval of such a law now would acknowledge how the public conscience can be elevated to the higher virtues behind all matters of justice, even if ever so slowly.

Attempts to pass a federal anti-lynching law go back to 1901. An African-American journalist, Ida B. Wells, sought support for such a measure from President William McKinley. She was famous as a national crusader for documenting lynchings and exposing the myths behind their use. The House did pass a bill – in 1924, then again in 1937 and 1940.

With the Senate finally acting in 2018, as a result of efforts by three black lawmakers, the incoming House will need to act again to make sure such a measure becomes law.

Ms. Wells, who was born into slavery in 1862 and died in 1931, knew there can be no rule of law or equality before the law without morality first driving the law. “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them,” she wrote in one of her many pamphlets and books.

Such an enlightened impetus often starts in the conscience of one person. It enables others to see through an evil to a truth that lies ready for full expression. Many like Wells have led similar campaigns, such as against land mines or domestic violence, by appealing to ideals such as sanctity of life or equality.

The Tuskegee Institute estimates that 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites were lynched between 1882 and 1968. A new monument that opened in Montgomery, Ala., last spring reminds Americans of the practice. It uses weathered steel columns hanging from a ceiling to depict the lynchings.

Laws, too, can be symbols and not only enforcers of a society’s moral awakening. Congress may be late in addressing such brutal injustice. But passing a law on lynching will go far to show how moral progress is made.

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