Marie Thompson was sentenced to death in 1904 for the crime of resisting the tyranny of Jim Crow. She was not afforded an opportunity to defend herself in a court of law, nor was her constitutional right to due process recognized. Her sentence was not imposed by an impartial judge, but rather by a bloodthirsty mob.
When a white farmer, John Irving, verbally and physically assaulted Marie Thompson’s son, who Irving accused of stealing a pair of pliers, she came to her child’s defense. Irving attacked Marie with a knife while her back was turned to him. The fight ended when Marie Thompson slit John Irving’s throat.
But the ordeal wasn’t over. Marie Thompson was arrested and, if she had lived in a different time, she would have been found to have justifiably acted in self-defense. But this was 1904, a time when even a prison could not hold back the lynch mob.
When dozens of armed men dragged Marie Thompson from her cell and tied a rope around her neck, she still did not lose the will to fight. Ignoring her cries for mercy, the men threw the rope over the branch of a tree and Thompson’s feet were lifted several inches off the ground. But Marie Thompson managed to steal a knife from a member of the mob, cut herself down, and began running for her life. Over 100 bullets flew at her and, when she fell, the mob cheered.
This was how a dispute over a pair of pliers was resolved in the Jim Crow south.
Marie Thompson was a human being, but she was not afforded the dignity that each individual deserves. She was a Black American woman, who lost her life resisting injustice. And, throughout my engagement with my colleagues in the Senate to make lynching a federal crime, Marie Thompson has been an inspiration to me.
When Congress passes the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, the heinous act of lynching will finally be recognized as a federal hate crime. I am a proud co-sponsor of that legislation, and all Americans should celebrate its imminent passage. But, we should also celebrate the process by which this legislation was crafted because I believe it will inspire renewed faith in our experiment in Republican government.
Officially designating lynching a federal crime is a powerful statement. But, when Congress creates new federal crimes, it has a responsibility to ensure that the law is just.
That is exactly what I attempted to do when, over a year ago, I offered an amendment to strengthen an earlier version of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. That version of the bill would have labeled a conspiracy to commit a vast array of different hate crimes, including those unrelated to physical harm to a person–such as defacing a church–a lynching.
At the same time, protests across the United States were erupting to protest the killing of George Floyd. That summer, protestors calling for racial justice defaced St. John’s Church in Washington, DC. Ironically, had that version of the antilynching bill become law, those protestors could have been the first to have been federally prosecuted for committing a “lynching.”
That real-life example demonstrates why Congress must carefully craft legislation that creates new federal crimes. My amendment, which I named in honor of Marie Thompson, would have ensured that the crime of lynching would be severely punished, while those accused of lesser crimes are punished in a proportionate manner.
Taking the time to get the bill right was, for some, an unpopular decision. Consideration of my amendment would inevitably slow the process of enacting the law, and some people, who were not inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt, hurled vile accusations at me on social media.
Sen. Cory Booker recognized my sincerity and agreed to work with me to make the bill stronger. Sen. Booker and I have collaborated to fight other injustices, such as mass incarceration. Our partnership worked because of a profound mutual respect for one another and a shared goal to right historic wrongs without inadvertently creating new victims.
All too often, news coverage portrays our nation as hopelessly divided and our government as broken. The intense debates, the contentious votes, and the partisan signing ceremonies may get the most attention from news organizations. But what the cameras cannot capture is the careful deliberation and cooperation that is required of public servants to faithfully fulfill their charge.
And so, a Republican and a Democrat from different backgrounds, different parts of the country, and different perspectives, sat down and did the hard work entrusted to us by our constituents. Our exchange of ideas was at times passionate, but always respectful and with our common goal sharply in mind. In short, we came up with a compromise.
That compromise took over a year to finalize. But the result of that compromise will be a historic law that finally recognizes lynching as a federal hate crime.
We owed it to Marie Thompson, to Emmett Till, and to the over 4,700 other victims of lynching in this country to get the law that honors them right.
You can read the op-ed HERE.