Senate Unanimously Passes Bill Making Lynching a Federal Crime

The Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill that would, for the first time, explicitly make lynching a federal crime.

“For over a century, members of Congress have attempted to pass some version of a bill that would recognize lynching for what it is: a bias-motivated act of terror,” Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who introduced the bill, said in a statement. “Today, we have righted that wrong and taken corrective action that recognizes this stain on our country’s history.”

More than 4,700 people, the vast majority of them black, were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968, according to the N.A.A.C.P. Perpetrators were rarely prosecuted. Congress has tried and failed some 200 times to pass similar anti-lynching legislation since 1882, according to the bill.

The bill, titled the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018, was introduced in June by the Senate’s three black members: Kamala Harris, a California Democrat; Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican; and Mr. Booker. A spokeswoman for Ms. Harris said her office was trying to get the House to schedule a vote on the bill before Congress adjourns this week.

“Lynchings were needless and horrendous acts of violence that were motivated by racism,” Ms. Harris said in a statement. “And we must acknowledge that fact, lest we repeat it.”

If the bill is enacted, it would explicitly add a section titled “lynching” to federal civil rights law, stating that if two or more people kill someone because of that person’s race or religion, they can be sentenced up to life in prison if convicted.

That addition is largely symbolic, said Brian Levin, director at the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. He said such violence could already be considered a federal or state-level hate crime, and the perpetrators could also face other charges, such as murder.

“The fact that the law would still even have the possibility of not fully addressing this is outrageous,” he said. “It should have been done a long time ago.”

Frank Pezzella, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the bill’s passage also carries a message of deterrence — that lynching or actions similar to it will not be tolerated by society. Reported hate crimes rose for the third consecutive year in 2017, according to the F.B.I.

“It was taken for granted in the South that whites could use force against any African-Americans who became overbearing,” he said. “How do we connect that with hate crimes in the present? Hate offenders really want to kind of go back to that place.”

The bill comes as the country has increasingly confronted the history of lynching.

In 2005, the Senate agreed to apologize to the victims of lynching and their descendants for its failure to pass anti-lynching legislation.

A large memorial for lynching victims, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opened in April, in Montgomery, Ala. It features a walkway with 800 worn steel columns hanging from the roof, engraved with the names of people who were lynched.

Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, Republican of Mississippi, received fierce criticism last month when she said at a campaign event, while praising a cattle rancher, that if he invited her to a “public hanging” she would be in the front row. Her Democratic opponent, Mike Espy, who is black, said the comments were “awful.”

Ms. Hyde-Smith happened to be the presiding officer in the Senate when the anti-lynching bill was passed on Wednesday.