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Congress finally makes lynching a federal hate crime

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Some 65 years after the torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till by two white men in Mississippi and 120 years after it first considered the issue, Congress has finally made lynching a federal hate crime.

The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act was passed overwhelmingly, although four lawmakers still voted against it. Lynching will now be punishable by life imprisonment, a fine, or both. The Senate passed its own anti-lynching legislation last year.

Welcoming the decision by Congress, Illinois Representative Bobby Rush said: "We sent a strong message that violence – and race-based violence in particular – has no place in American society."

Lynching is defined as the killing of a person by a group for an alleged offence without a legal trial, often but not always by hanging.

Between the 1880s and 1960s thousands of Americans, most of them black, were lynched, particularly in the southern states.

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Image: Roy Bryant (left), his wife Carolyn and J.W. Milam with his wife after the men were acquitted of Till's murder

The 1955 murder of Emmett Till, after whom the bill is named, became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement.

The Chicago teenager was visiting relatives near the town of Money, Mississippi, when he was accused of flirting with 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the white married proprietor of a small grocery store, although what he said to her has always been disputed.

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In the deeply conservative and segregated South his actions were deemed to have violated the strictures of conduct for an African-American male interacting with a white woman.

Several nights after the incident, Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam abducted Till from his great-uncle's house, beat him and shot him in the head before dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River.

His mutilated corpse was recovered three days later.

The all-white jury that cleared Bryant and Milam
Image: The all-white jury that cleared Bryant and Milam

In September 1955 an all-white jury found Bryant and Milam not guilty of Till's kidnapping and murder. A year later, protected by double jeopardy, which prevents an accused person being tried again for the same offences, the two men admitted killing the 14-year-old in a magazine interview.

And in a 2008 interview with historian Timothy Tyson, Carolyn Bryant said she had exaggerated details of her encounter with Till.

The Bill bearing his name now goes to the White House where President Trump is expected to formally sign it into law.

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