WASHINGTON – An anti-lynching bill that Sen. Rand Paul has held up in the Senate for several months led to a heated and passionate battle on the Senate floor Thursday, pitting the Kentucky Republican at odds with two of the Senate’s three black members over changes to the bipartisan legislation.
The emotional debate centered on the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, which passed the House in a bipartisan 410-4 vote in February and would make lynching a federal crime. Paul has put forth changes to bill he argues would prevent those involved in minor altercations from being charged with lynching and receiving a 10-year sentence. The bill is named in memory of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teenager who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 and whose death was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
Paul offered changes to the measure Thursday afternoon, which was met with blunt and emotional opposition from Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., two of the chamber’s three black members, leaving the measure’s future unclear.
“I seek to amend this legislation, not because I take it or lynching lightly, but because I take it seriously and this legislation does not,” Paul said on the Senate floor, adding that the bill “would cheapen the meaning of lynching” by defining it so broadly that it would include bruises and cuts. He chronicled the history of lynchings in the USA and his issues with the bill.
Paul’s proposed changes were blocked by Harris and Booker who offered a stern and emotional objection, launching a debate that coincided with the memorial services for George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on the 46-year-old’s neck for several minutes. The footage of his death spurred worldwide protests, riots in several cities and renewed calls to stop racial injustice and police brutality.
“That we would not be taking the issue of lynching seriously is an insult, an insult to Sen. Booker, an insult to Sen. (Tim) Scott and myself,” Harris said, listing the only three black senators that serve in the chamber, each of whom have been leaders on this issue. She called Paul’s amendment and his comments “ridiculous” and said the changes he is pushing for are things that “would weaken” the bill and put a “greater burden on victims of lynching than is currently required under federal hate crime laws.”
“There is no reason for this,” Harris said. “There is no reason other than cruel and deliberate obstruction on a day of mourning.”
Booker joined Harris in objecting, offering an emotional speech that nearly brought him to tears several times. He pleaded for Paul to allow this bill to pass as is, arguing that it will not only help embolden federal laws but it would also send a message and “give hope to this country.”
“I do not question the sincerity of his convictions. I have had too many conversations with him to question his heart. But I am so raw today,” Booker said, his voice cracking as he looked over at Paul. “Of all days that we’re doing this right now, having this discussion, when God, if this bill passed today, what that would mean for America.”
Booker chronicled going to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and watching black families cry as they saw stories about pregnant black women lynched and their babies ripped out of them. He added “I do not need my colleague, the senator from Kentucky, to tell me about one lynching in this country.”
“I don’t mean to be emotional,” Booker said. “I’m raw this week.”
After the emotional speeches, Paul said he was only trying to prevent “unintended consequences” to the bill, noting his work on criminal justice reforms to prevent more people from being incarcerated unfairly. He noted that he’s been trying to come to a solution on his issues with the bill and is working with Booker’s office.
“You think I’m getting any good publicity out of this? No,” Paul said bluntly. “I will be excoriated by simple-minded people on the internet who think somehow I don’t like Emmett Till or appreciate the history and the memory of Emmett Till. I’ll be lectured to by everybody that I’ve got no right to have an opinion on any of these things. I should be quiet. But we can’t just not read our bills.”
Paul’s amendment failing on Thursday and his continued opposition means the bill will continue to sit in the Senate until Paul either concedes or changes are made to the legislation. A vote on the legislation has not been scheduled.
The Senate unanimously passed a bill that would accomplish the same goal, Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, by a voice vote last year.
One of the authors of that legislation, Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, told Politico that the quickest way to make lynching a federal hate crime is for the House to take up the Senate’s bill, pass it and send it to President Donald Trump for his signature.
Contributing: Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY, and Ben Tobin, of the Louisville Courier Journal