After more than a century of failed attempts, the Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation making mob lynching a federal civil rights crime.
Led by Sen. Kamala Harris, California Democrat, the bill could impose a sentence of life in prison on those found guilty.
She and Sen. Cory Booker, who cosponsored, said the Senate has failed on nearly 200 previous attempts to pass such a bill, making this week’s victory all the more important symbolically.
“It will not reverse the irrevocable harm that lynching as a tool of oppression and suppression has caused,” Mr. Booker said. “But it will acknowledge the wrongs in our history. It will honor the memories of those so brutally killed.”
While the House had passed such a law several times, Southern senators had always blocked approval.
The last attempt to pass a bill dates back to the 1960s, as lynchings petered out.
In 2005, senators did approve a resolution apologizing to victims of lynching for past failures.
Ms. Harris’ bill says that while an apology was important, it wasn’t enough.
It’s doubtful there’s time to clear the new bill through the House this year. But passage now should make it easy to approve it again in the new Congress next year, clearing the path for it to become law.
Few senators were on the floor for Wednesday’s debate — but the presiding officer was Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, the Mississippi Republican who last month sparked a national firestorm after joking she would attend a “public hanging” if invited by a supporter.
She later apologized for those remarks.
Senators calculated that more than 4,700 people were lynched in the U.S. from 1882 to 1968, and most of them were blacks. Almost all of the crimes went without punishment.
It also connects the race-tinged clashes last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the country’s sad history of race-intimidation violence.
“Lynchings were needless and horrendous acts of violence that were motivated by racism. And we must acknowledge that fact, lest we repeat it,” Ms. Harris said.