by Stacy M. Brown
Cory Booker was so moved by the unanimous passage of a historic – and long overdue – bill to make lynching a federal crime that he was stirred to quote Maya Angelou.
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again,” Booker said as he thanked the senators who agreed in a historic moment to stand up as one and make lynching a federal crime.
The bill would require an enhanced sentence for those who commit such crimes and judges would now be able to hand down life sentences to perpetrators.
“Gratitude,” Booker said as earlier, the New Jersey Democratic Senator joined with California Democrat Kamala Harris in seeking the Senate’s support.
Introduced to the Senate in June, the legislation still needs House approval and, of course, the signature of President Donald Trump.
Reportedly, there have been 200 previous attempts over the past century to pass similar legislation, but each had failed to this point. Between 1890 and 1952 in the United States, seven presidents petitioned Congress to end lynching, reads language in the bill.
The bill defines a person guilty of lynching as “willfully, acting as part of any collection of people, assembled for the purpose and with the intention of … (causing) death to any person.”
Between 1882 and 1968, the NAACP recorded 4,743 lynchings, 3,446 of which included victims who were black. In all, 73 percent of the people lynched were black, but the NAACP said not all lynchings were recorded at the time.
“Lynching is a dark and despicable aspect of our nation’s history,” said Sen. Harris, who along with Booker are the center of swirling speculation about a 2020 presidential run. “We must acknowledge that fact, lest we repeat it,” she said.
As racial tension grew in the late 19th century, mostly in the South, lynchings became a popular way of resolving the anger whites had toward newly freed slaves in the middle of general economic problems.
However, Newsweek reported that 27 percent – or 1,297 of the 4,743 total number of people lynched from 1882 to 1968 – were white. The NAACP said many whites were lynched in retaliation for aiding blacks, expressing anti-lynching sentiments or committing domestic crimes.
“This has been a long arc, a painful history and a shameful history in this body,” Booker said.
“At the height of lynchings across this country, affecting thousands of people, this body did not act to make that a federal crime… at least now, the United States Senate has acted. One hundred senators, no objections,” he said.
Just one day before the Senate passed the anti-lynching legislation, President Donald Trump signed “The First Step Act,” a bill that provides a measure of criminal justice reform.
Booker co-sponsored The First Step Act.
“I just want everybody to know it is just a first step and I know there will be some people heralding it as the reform of the criminal justice system. That’s a little wrong and it’s a lot wrong and even offensive because we have a lot more work to do,” Booker said.
“But this bill, think of it as doing about three major things: one is a lot of sentencing reform, giving judges more flexibility to not go around the mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenders, correcting one of the biggest disgraces around the crack cocaine powder cocaine disparity,” he said.
The bill makes that retroactive, which means about 2,660 people, 90 percent of whom are black will now find justice and have pathways to liberation after the wallowing in jail for years, disproportionately and wrongly because of what was in effect a racist policy, Booker said.
“It does a lot on the sentencing reform. Then it changes a lot of things inside prison that are just outrageous, from effectively ending juvenile solitary confinement on the federal level; ending the shackling of pregnant women and, when they’re in prison, even just like basic acts of dignity,” he said.
The legislation also ensures that a woman’s feminine hygiene products are made available free to women in prison and the bill helps to prepare those who are leaving jail.
“With allowing for everything from re-entry programs and efforts to helping people earn time, shave off months and years to help them, because if they’re participating in programs that will empower them when they get out,” Booker said. “And the fact the good time credit fix alone by making it a fairer system is going to help get rid of 33,000 years in prison alone with what they’re doing.
“This is going to help a lot of people get pathways to liberation, sooner pathways to liberation immediately. It’s going to stop some awful things that go on to people in prison.
“So, this is a good bill, but it is just a first step in a mile-long journey of criminal justice reforms we need to do from policing all the way through to re-entry.”