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Leonard Pitts Jr.: Getting America to do right by Americans of color

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Emmett Louis Till, 14, with his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, at home in Chicago.
Chicago Tribune file photo/TNS
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Two hundred times, they failed to get it done.

They failed after 1899. That was the year an African-American man named Sam Hose was massacred by a white mob near Newnan, Georgia, that castrated him, skinned his face, then cooked him alive over a fire and parceled out pieces of his body; his knuckles were offered for sale by a grocer in Atlanta.

They failed after 1904, too. That was the year an African-American man named Luther Holbert and a woman who was never identified were put to death by a white mob in Doddsville, Mississippi, who used a large corkscrew to drill into the pair's flesh and yank out raw chunks of them as spectators dined on deviled eggs and lemonade.

And they failed after 1934. That was the year an African-American man named Claude Neal was butchered by a white mob in Marianna, Florida, that castrated, burned and shot him, dragged his ruined body through the streets behind a car and then left it hanging from a tree that still stands in front of the Jackson County Courthouse.

This sort of thing was the opposite of uncommon. As documented by Tuskegee University, it happened 4,743 times between 1882 and 1968, the vast majority of the victims African Americans. Their killers were virtually never tried and even less often punished. And approximately 200 times since 1900, legislation has been introduced in Congress to make lynching a federal crime. Each time, Congress has failed to pass it.

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So it's hard to know what to make of last week's signing of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. The bill, named for the 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for supposedly getting fresh with a white woman, at last achieves the old goal. And the response has been celebratory, as of a mountain finally scaled. You can't begrudge anyone who feels a sense of triumph, particularly Rep. Bobby Rush, the soon-to-retire Chicago Democrat who sponsored the bill.

He said in a statement that the new law corrects a "historic and abhorrent injustice." And he invoked Martin Luther King: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

You'll get no argument here. But you will get some mixed emotions.

Two hundred times, Congress failed the likes of Sam Hose, Luther Holbert and Claude Neal. It failed Mary Turner and Rubin Stacy, failed Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith, Laura Nelson, Bennie Simmons, Emmett Till and 4,733 more. Two hundred times, it had the chance to declare on behalf of the nation that these Black lives mattered -- and it did not. And if Rep. Rush is inspired by what King said about the arc of the moral universe, well, it is apropos that he also said this: "We must come to see, with one our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.' "

Amen. And no one can give justice to the 4,743 men and women Congress failed. Any meaningful chance to do so long ago turned to dust. Yes, people of color still suffer racially motivated killings, and this bill provides a new tool to hold perpetrators accountable. That's an undeniably good thing.

But it's a good thing wrapped in the frustration that getting America to do right by Americans of color is always such an ordeal. As Gil Scott-Heron once said: "I have become a special amendment for what included me all along: 'All men are created equal.'" The bitterness of that truth shades the sweetness of any joy.

Two hundred times, they failed to get it done.

Apparently, the 201st was the charm.

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Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

©2021 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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