Reckoning with Racist Violence

I think Mary Seymour is smiling. On Tuesday, March 29th, President Joe Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making racist violence a federal hate crime. 

Mary Townsend Seymour (1873-1957) was the Connecticut state organizer for the Anti Lynching Crusaders, an affiliate of the NAACP in the 1920s. She was a tireless Hartford activist who spent her life fighting for the disenfranchised. Along with New Haven’s Linna Saunders, Seymour criss-crossed the state to recruit members to the cause. 

This new law is historic–literally. For more than one hundred years Connecticut people looked to Congress to provide an effective method that federal prosecutors could use to prosecute racial violence. 

Why? Because time and again, local legal authorities–especially in the South– looked the other way, or actually joined in the brutal spectacles that took the lives of African American men, women, and children. 

“Lynching” has a broad and bloody definition: “an extrajudicial execution, in order to punish an alleged transgressor, or to intimidate, control, or otherwise manipulate a population of people.” This collective sadism has also been a weapon used to terrorize many other groups of people– Mexican, Asian, gay and trans, and even Italian immigrants in Louisiana and Mississippi. 

 In 1899, African Americans in Hartford rallied and lobbied to pass a national law making mob violence a federal offense. Several hundred people gathered in Foot Guard Hall, formed the Anti Lynching League and vowed to pressure lawmakers to act. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, national groups with Connecticut affiliates played an important role against lynching. The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church backed proposed laws, as did the Federation of Churches, the Farmer-Labor Party, and the American Negro Labor Congress. 

Labor unions also took a stand. Groups like the United Electrical (UE) workers held street corner meetings in Hartford to drum up support. In the 1940s their demonstrations were joined by high profile figures like Eslanda Robeson, wife of Paul Robeson and an activist in her own right. 

It’s hard to believe, but lynching has been openly  favored by public figures. In 1912, Connecticut Governor Simeon Baldwin was criticized for his failure to stand against mob violence. In the 1930s, the governors of Massachusetts and California were actually defending the “right” of their states’ citizens to illegally execute their Black neighbors. 

Justice will never come for Emmett Till, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Heather Heyer, Breonna Taylor, the Charleston church members, or the 6,000 recorded victims of lynch mobs. But a measure of accountability may now be a reality. 

Biased-motivated, organized murder demands a reckoning. If not for the early efforts of Mary Seymour and countless others, we would never have reached this place. 

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