One of the final acts of the 114th Congress saw unanimous passage in both the Senate and House of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016, which allowed President Barack Obama to sign it into law on Dec. 16. Evoking the brutal 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the acquittal of his murderers in Mississippi, the law is expected to make good on the failed promises of its original 2008 incarnation. Civil rights groups fought hard for what they now hope will bring some solace to still-grieving families.
“This vital legislation responds to the concerns of families, advocates and academics who have closely followed the federal, state and local efforts to investigate and when possible prosecute crimes that were racially motivated and have been closed without a conviction,” the NAACP said in a formal statement. “This common-sense reauthorization will help [the Department of Justice] to better coordinate its investigations and prosecutions with the FBI and local authorities and will address gaps in the previous bill and the existing program regardless of when the crime occurred. Most notably, the current bill clarifies and expands the process for transparency and collaboration between all stakeholders in the shared pursuit of justice.”
Paula C. Johnson, law professor and co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University College of Law, said, “Some people ask us why this is important. If you speak with the families who suffered the loss of a loved one by a brutal, racially motivated murder never thoroughly investigated or prosecuted, or you talk to a community that was terrorized by uncontrolled and unpunished racist violence, you begin to understand that a humane society that prioritizes justice has no choice but to pursue these cases until it is no longer possible.”
House and Senate officials note that before the passage of major civil rights legislation in the 1960s, hundreds of racially motivated murders and hate crimes were committed, primarily against African-Americans, in the United States, particularly in the South. Few attempts to prosecute them were made at the time. Tuskegee Institute once kept a record of verified lynchings in the country from 1877 to 1950 and documented that nearly 4,000 unprosecuted civil rights crimes occurred during that period. To this day many families continue to pass down stories of loss and disappearance without knowing the truth about what actually happened to their loved ones. Lawmakers insist that The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act represents a critical opportunity to right these wrongs that were committed not only against African-Americans, but also against people of diverse backgrounds. They point out that in some cases, individuals still remain who were witnesses to these crimes or who can help provide evidence regarding these incidents.
Among its key provisions, the new legislation requires the FBI and the Department of Justice to collaborate with individuals and nongovernmental entities such as universities and civil rights organizations that have been independently investigating such crimes.
“…You begin to understand that a humane society that prioritizes justice has no choice but to pursue these cases until it is no longer possible.”
Not only will the new law never expire, but it also expands by 10 years the period of coverage of the original law, which limited jurisdiction to those cases arising before Dec. 31, 1969. It also continues authorization and funding for federal investigations of cold cases arising long after the civil rights era. The 2008 legislation provided $10 million a year to fund FBI investigations of cold cases of civil rights era murders.
Christopher D. Benson, associate professor of African American Studies and journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reports in an article for The Huffington Post that at least one significant prosecution resulted under the original legislation – the 1965 shooting death of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson by Alabama State Trooper James Bonard Fowler, depicted in the movie “Selma.” Jackson’s killing during a police attack on voting rights demonstrators was one of the events that inspired the Selma-to-Montgomery march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “The FBI investigation of this cold case under the [original] Till Act led to the 75-year-old Fowler’s 2010 guilty plea to one count of second degree manslaughter — some 45 years after he killed Jackson,” Benson wrote.
According to the Cold Case Justice Initiative, as of 2015 the Justice Department had closed 115 of the 126 cases on their list, often without fully pursuing potential witnesses or family members of victims. The Initiative also determined 196 unsolved cases that should have been on the DOJ’s and FBI’s lists to investigative were not.