More than a century after an anti-lynching bill was first proposed by a black congressman, the Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill that would make lynching a federal hate crime.
Introduced this summer by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and two Democratic colleagues, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, the bill defines lynching as the "willful act of murder by a collection of people assembled with the intention of committing an act of violence upon any person."
The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018 also makes it so that anyone found guilty of lynching could face life in prison.
More than 4,000 such acts were reported in the United States during this past century and during the Reconstruction period in the 19th century.
At least 185 lynchings were recorded in South Carolina between 1877 and 1950, according to a 2017 report by the Equal Justice Initiative.
While some states address lynching as a crime, the Senate bill would specify lynching as a federal crime in itself that would warrant enhanced sentencing under existing hate crime codes.
"I am glad the Senate passed this important bill today, and am hopeful the House will do the same," Scott said.
"It is important we send a signal to those with hate in their hearts that we will not tolerate these heinous actions," he added.
The House could pass the measure this week and send it to President Donald Trump.
U.S. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, currently the third-ranking House Democrat, pledged to do what he could to push the bill toward passage.
"I strongly support this long-overdue legislation," he said, "and I urge the Republican Leadership to bring it to the House floor without further delay."
If the bill does not pass the House this week, it would have to start the legislative process over again.
In a tweet before the vote, Harris noted it has been 63 years since Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teenager, was tortured and lynched by two white men in a small Mississippi town.
"Lynching is a dark and despicable aspect of our nation's history. We must acknowledge that fact, lest we repeat it," Harris tweeted after the vote in which she praised Booker and Scott for their help on the measure.
Congress has tried and failed to pass similar measures nearly 200 times. The last instance in which federal lawmakers sought to pass an anti-lynching bill was in 1965. In 2005, the Senate issued an apology for its past legislative failures on the matter.
Lowcountry civil rights backers praised the measure. The Rev. Nelson Rivers of Charity Baptist Church in North Charleston commended Scott, Harris, Booker and others for getting the law through the Senate.
"It’s a sad commentary on America that it took until 2018 to get it done," Rivers said. “In some ways, it is very appropriate that the only African-American Republican senator would do this.”
Historically, Southern Democrats were often the lawmakers who blocked the measures from passage.
"Think about that," Rivers said. "Lynching was a common practice. It was done in a group. Sometimes it was a party. Sometimes the atmosphere was like a carnival. The Bible Belt was not a real belt. It was a noose around the necks of black people."
Shaundra Scott, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, was surprised lynching was not already illegal. She understood the intent behind the law but was disappointed that lawmakers were addressing an issue of days gone by.
Dr. Patricia Williams-Lessane, director of the Avery Cultural Center in Charleston, said the measure is an accomplishment but also appears hollow under the accepted conduct of President Donald Trump.
"It’s ironic that Scott would even be affixing his name to something like this," she said. "He supports a president who, every day picks up the type of hatred, racist vitriolic language and divisive language that continues to divide this country. And yet you’re going to step back and say, 'I want to propose a bill to make lynching a hate crime.'"
Last year, the Avery Institute and the Race and Social Justice Initiative published "The State of Racial Disparities in Charleston County, South Carolina," a report that analyzed data from 2000-2015. Its findings found conditions responsible for gentrification and inequality, Williams-Lessane said.
For example, the report found that 56 percent of the black population lacked access to healthy foods. It also found that black students in Charleston County graduated high school at a rate of 75 percent, while white students graduated at a rate of 91 percent.
Shaundra Scott, no relation to the senator, said she would like more attention brought to law enforcement interactions with black people.
Making lynching a hate crime does not ease her fears about her 15-year-old son walking out the door each day, she said.
"Him being lynched has never crossed my mind," Scott said. "Him being shot by a police officer or by an assault rifle at school has crossed my mind. Every single day."
The presiding officer for the bill's floor debate was reportedly U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Mississippi Republican who faced intense backlash after she told a supporter during her re-election bid that she would "be on the front row" if invited to a "public hanging."
Hyde-Smith later apologized for her comment.