Congressman Who Introduced Emmett Till Antilynching Act Comments On The Arbery Case

May 15, 2020
Originally published on May 15, 2020 7:19 pm

Emmett Till forever changed the history of the United States when his story — the story of a 14 year old African-American boy lynched in Mississippi — made national news in 1955. After his death, Till became an icon, forcing forward the civil rights movement.

But lynching is still not a federal crime in the United States – something that Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) wants to change. Rush introduced the Emmett Till Anti Lynching Act in the House, where it passed in February, the same month that Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging in Georgia.

Rush's bill notes that nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced to the Congress during the first half of the 20th century — a period that coincides with peak lynchings during the Jim Crow era.

Rush, Georgia born, says the death of Emmett Till was the catalyst for his mother's decision to leave the South and for him to get involved in social justice work. He says that tragically, the death of Ahmaud Arbery carries painful parallels to the Till case.

Rush spoke of those parallels in an interview Friday with NPR's All Things Considered. Here are excerpts from that conversation.


Interview Highlights

On whether Ahmaud Arbery's death would qualify as a lynching under his legislation

I'm absolutely certain that Mr. Arbery's killing would fall within the total jurisdiction, description, purpose and spirit of the bill that passed the house.

On what Emmett Till's death meant to him

Emmett's death meant so much to me and to a whole generation of people. My generation, as a matter of fact, was really significantly shaped by the brutal murder of Emmett Till and the courage of his mother to keep his casket open ... That really created the impetus for the Civil Rights movement that changed the nation.

The major lie that was told back then really has a strong connection — an unbroken connection to the lie that the father and son [who were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault] told in the Ahmaud Arbery case.

... This is an uninterrupted lie that extends from the lips of Emmett's murders back then to Arbery's murder even to this present day. The spirt of trying to get away with murder and to express racist motivation and intent to kill an innocent person just because of the color of their skin.

On the frustrations of having to pass the Emmett Till Antilynching Act for both past and present cases

I'm 73-years-old now and I must have been nine or 10 when Emmett was killed, alight. But the question that I have in my heart and in my spirit is when is this going to end? When will it be a violation of the federal law?

On how the law could affect the handling of the Ahmaud Arbery case

It would give the Justice Department not just a violation of a hate crime statue to charge the offenders with. But, to me, to be identified as a "lyncher" in America, it says something about your character. You will never ever be able to live that down. That's a mark on you and your family. Being a murderer is one thing. That's abhorrent in any civil society. But to be someone who is a lyncher, being a part of a lynching mob. Oh my lord, how low can you go. You can't get any lower than that.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Emmett Till forever changed the history of the United States when his story, the story of a 14-year-old African American boy lynched in Mississippi, made national news in 1955. After his death, Till became an icon forcing forward the civil rights movement. But lynching is still not a federal crime in the United States in 2020, something Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois wants to change. He introduced the Emmett Till Antilynching Act in the House where it passed back in February, the same month, we now know, that Ahmaud Arbery was killed. He's the unarmed black man who was shot while jogging in Georgia. Well, we have invited Congressman Rush to reflect on this, and he joins me now from the Capitol. Congressman, welcome.

BOBBY RUSH: Thank you, Mary Louise. I am certainly glad to be on your show with you this afternoon.

KELLY: We are glad to have you with us. I want to start with Ahmaud Arbery. As you know, the investigation into his death is ongoing. Based on what we do know, do you believe his killing would qualify as a lynching under your bill as your bill lays it out?

RUSH: I'm absolutely certain that Mr. Arbery's killing would fall within the total jurisdiction and the description and the purpose. And the smearing of the bill then passed the House, and it's languishing there in the Senate. So I'm absolutely certain that it would fit within in the bill.

KELLY: I went back and read the statement that you put out on the day that the House voted to pass your bill, voted overwhelmingly by the way. It was 410-4. And that statement that you put out on February 26 reads, and I'll quote it, "with the passage of this bill, we correct a historical injustice based on a lie that took the life of this young man." I've read it twice and you were, of course, talking about Emmett Till. But I wonder if you have thought back on those words given that we now know about this other young black man, Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed that same week in February that you all were voting.

RUSH: Yeah, absolutely. And when Emmett was killed, Emmett's death meant so much to me and to a whole generation of people. My generation, as a matter of fact, was really significantly shaped by the brutal murder of Emmett Till. And the courage of his mother to keep his casket open...

KELLY: The courage of his mother - yeah.

RUSH: That really created the emphasis for the civil rights movement that changed the nation. The major lie that was told back then really has a strong connection, a unbroken connection, to the lie that the father and the son told me in Ahmaud Arbery case.

KELLY: You're talking about the two men who have been charged in the Ahmaud Arbery case.

RUSH: Absolutely. And this is an uninterrupted lie that extends from the lips of Emmett's murderers back then to Arbery's murderers even to this present day - this spirit of trying to get away with murder, to express racist motivation and intent to kill an innocent person just because of the color of their skin.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, I hear the anger in your voice that a bill like this would be necessary in 2020, not just to address past wrongs of decades ago, but that it would still feel so frustratingly relevant today in 2020.

RUSH: I'm 73 years old now. And I must have been 9 or 10 when Emmett was killed. All right. But the question that I have in my heart and my spirit is, when is this going to end? When will it be a violation of the federal law?

KELLY: If your bill becomes law, how might this legislation affect the handling of the Ahmaud Arbery case?

RUSH: It would give them not just a violation of a hate crime statute to charge name offenders with the murder as well but able to be identified as a lyncher and a murderer. That says something about your character. You will never ever be able to live that down. That's a mark on you and your family. I mean, being a murderer is one thing. I mean, that's abhorrent in any civil society. But to be someone who is a lyncher, being a part of a lynching mob, oh, my lord, how low can you go? You can't get any lower than that.

KELLY: Congressman Bobby Rush, Democrat of Illinois and sponsor of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which would make lynching a federal crime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.