4:11 p.m. EDT
THE PRESIDENT (The invoice is signed.) Agreed. It’s the law. (Applause.)
(The President goes up to the podium.)
Thank you. It’s a bit unusual to sign the bill, say nothing and then talk, but that’s how we’ve set it up.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, good morning. I just signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching – (applause) – a federal hate crime for the first time in American history.
I want to thank Vice President Harris, who was one of the main co-sponsors of this bill when she was a United States senator. (Applause.)
And I also want to thank Speaker Pelosi and Chief Schumer and the members of Congress here, especially Congressman Hoyer and Bobby Rush, Senator Dick Durbin and Cory Booker. (Applause.) I — I also want to thank Senator Tim Scott, who was unable to be here today.
And the civil rights leaders gathered here today and, most importantly, the family of Emmett Till and Ida B. Wells: Thank you for never giving up. Never, ever give up. (Applause.)
In fact, she [great]- granddaughter told me that her mother was there — when? —
MRS. DUSTER: (Inaudible.)
THE PRESIDENT: — I mean, your [great]-grandmother was there – when? —
MRS. DUSTER: It was 1898.
THE PRESIDENT In 1898, to plead in favor of the anti-lynching law. It was over 100 years ago, in 1900, when a representative from North Carolina named George Henry White – the son of a slave; the only black lawmaker in Congress at the time – who was the first to introduce legislation to make lynching a federal crime.
Hundreds – hundreds of similar bills have not passed.
Over the years, several federal hate crimes laws have been enacted, including one I signed last year to address hate crimes related to COVID-19. But no federal law – no federal law expressly prohibits lynching. Any. Till today. (Applause.)
One of the main chronicles in our lynching story is Bryan Stevenson, who happens to be a Delawarean from my home state, who really wanted to be here today, but he couldn’t.
He helped build the National Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, the first American site dedicated to understanding the legacy of lynching.
You know, his extensive research showed that between 1877 and 1950 over 4,400 black people were murdered by lynching, mostly in the South but also in the North. That’s a lot of people, man, and a lot of silence for a long time.
The lynching was pure terror to uphold the lie that not everyone – not everyone belongs in America and not everyone is created equal; terror to systematically undermine hard-won civil rights; terror not only in the dark of night
but in broad daylight.
Innocent men, women and children hanged by ropes from trees. Bodies burned, drowned and castrated.
Their crimes? Try to vote. Try to go to school. To try to own a business or preach the gospel. False charges of murder, arson and theft. Just be black.
Often, crowds of white families would gather to celebrate the spectacle, taking photos of the bodies and sending them as postcards.
Emmett Till was an only child. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago with his mother, Grandma, grandparents and cousins.
In the summer of 1955, Emmett turned 14, ready to start eighth grade in the fall. Before school started, he wanted to visit his cousins in Mississippi. So Emmett’s mom dropped him off at the Chicago train station. His own family fled the Delta decades earlier, so she told him — she told him the unwritten rules he had to follow. Quote: “Be very careful how you speak. Say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no madam’, and don’t hesitate to be — to humble yourself if you have to get down on your knees”. End of quote.
That same talk, that same caveat – too many black parents today still have to use that caveat. They must tell their children when it comes to encounters with law enforcement. You know, and so many other circumstances.
She kissed Emmett goodbye. It was the last time she saw her son alive.
A few days after arriving in Mississippi, Emmett’s mutilated body was found in a river, with barbed wire tied around his neck and a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied to that wire while he was thrown into the river.
Emmett’s mother – his mother demanded that her son be sent home so that his funeral in Chicago could be an open casket.
This is what she said: “Let the people see what I have seen. America and the world saw what she saw.
Emmett Till was born almost 40 years ago after the introduction of the first anti-lynching law. Although he was one of thousands of people lynched, his mother’s courage – his mother’s courage to show the world what was done to her energized the civil rights movement.
Exactly 100 days later, Rosa Parks was arrested on the bus in Montgomery. His statue is in my office. She said, “I thought of Emmett Till and couldn’t go back.” “I thought of Emmett Till and couldn’t go back.”
Dr. King often preached, quote, “the weeping voices of little Emmett Till, howling from the bulrushes of the Mississippi.”
To the Till family: We remain in awe of your courage to find purpose through your pain. To find purpose through your pain. But the law is not only about the past, it is also about the present and our future.
From the bullets in the back of Ahmaud Arbery to countless other acts of violence – countless victims known and unknown – the same racial hatred that caused the crowd to hang a noose brought this crowd carrying torches out of the fields of Charlottesville just a few years ago.
Racial hatred is not an old problem; it is a persistent problem. A persistent problem. And I know a lot of civil rights leaders here know this, and you’ve heard me say it a hundred times: hate never goes away; he is just hiding. He hides under the rocks. And with just a little oxygen, it comes out roaring, screaming. But what stops him is all of us, not a few. We all have to stop it.
People like Ida B. Wells, one of the founders of the NAACP, created 100 years ago in response to racial terror across the country. A brilliant and gifted writer, she exposed the barbaric nature of lynching—lynching as a tool to intimidate and subjugate black Americans.
And her words, her courage, her convictions – she was trying to prevent the murders of Emmett Till and Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others – more than 4,400 others.
Ida B. — Ida B. Wells once said, and I quote: “The way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth on wrongs. “Switch on the light of truth over wrongs.”
That’s what you all did, gathered in this rose garden, with this bill and so much more, including Ida B. Wells’ great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, whom I have the honor to present to mark this historic day.
Michelle, welcome to the White House, and welcome to the podium. And as my mother would say: God loves you, my darling.
4:22 p.m. EDT