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Congress passes an anti-lynching bill after more than a century of trying

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It took them more than a century, but Congress approved a bill to make lynching a federal crime,

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CHUCK SCHUMER: And after so long, the Senate has now finally addressed one of the most shameful elements of this nation's past by making lynching a federal crime.

INSKEEP: Majority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke as the bill passed the Senate last night by unanimous consent. Now it heads to President Biden's desk. We spoke earlier with NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

Passing a bill by unanimous consent makes it sound easy, but I don't think this was.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: No. Congress tried more than 200 times to pass an anti-lynching bill before this legislation made it through both chambers. This was first attempted more than a century ago. And each time, the bills have failed. So the bill that passed yesterday also passed the House last week on the last day of Black History Month. And, you know, the House had passed bills before, but this unanimous action in the Senate is actually a really big shift. So the earlier version that was sponsored by Congressman Bobby Rush, a Democrat of Illinois, actually easily passed the House two years ago. At the same time, in the Senate, Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, and also Vice President Kamala Harris, when she was in the Senate, all had a companion version. They tried to pass the bill in 2020 after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. At the time, it was blocked by Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

INSKEEP: Interesting. One senator, of course, can sometimes block a bill. But in this case, last night, the bill passed by unanimous consent. Does that mean that Rand Paul changed his mind?

SNELL: Well, back in 2020, Paul said he thought the bill wasn't precise enough. And he accused the sponsors of crafting a bill that would lead to excessive sentencing. He said - and I'm going to quote here - that the bill would define lynching, quote, "so broadly as to include a minor bruise or abrasion." You know, his comments set - and his objections really set off this tense and deeply emotional fight on the Senate floor. It was just one week after George Floyd was killed. You know, Booker and Harris gave really heated and heartfelt speeches, pointing out that Paul was blocking a bill as mourners still gathered in protest in Minneapolis. Here's part of how Harris responded at the time.

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KAMALA HARRIS: Black lives have not been taken seriously as being fully human and deserving of dignity. And it should not require a maiming or torture in order for us to recognize a lynching when we see it and recognize it by federal law.

SNELL: So this time Paul was a co-sponsor of the bill. You know, he said it was always his goal to strengthen the bill, and he called lynching a heinous crime and worked with the three black senators - so Scott and Booker, plus Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock - on this version.

INSKEEP: So now it's passed. It goes to President Biden's desk. How does it fit with this other civil rights priorities?

SNELL: Well, yeah, it was a major priority for Democrats, but this is just one element of a longer list of mostly stalled plans. You know, Biden promised to update the Voting Rights Act. And while voting rights bills have passed the House several times, they've been repeatedly blocked by Republicans in the Senate. You know, Senators Booker and Scott, who led on this anti-lynching bill, were also the lead negotiators on policing reform legislation last year, but that's another key piece of Biden's racial justice agenda that's stalled out.

INSKEEP: Kelsey, thanks for the update. It's always a pleasure to hear from you.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: That's NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.