Will it spur more of an effort to solve civil rights murders than the original legislation?
By Frederick H. Lowe
President Barack Obama has signed legislation permanently reauthorizing a law that expands prosecution of civil rights-era murders after an earlier version of the law failed miserably to live up to expectations.
The president on Friday signed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Bill of 2007, which expands the authority of the Department of Justice and FBI to investigate and prosecute race-based murders.
The legislation is named in honor of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy who was kidnapped and murdered on Aug. 28, 1955, in Money, Miss., by Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam for whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman.
The teenager’s beaten and horribly mutilated body, tied to a heavy industrial fan, floated to the surface of the Tallahatchie River, where it was discovered by two boys swimming in the river.
An all-white male jury found Milam and Bryant not guilty, but the two admitted killing Till in a Jan. 24, 1956 interview with Look magazine for which they were paid. Bryant operated a store and it went out business after blacks launched a boycott.
The current Emmett Till legislation was scheduled to expire on Sept. 30, 2017, the end of the government’s fiscal year. The legislation was passed in 2008, after being introduced by Congressman John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement. Lewis’ bill limited investigations to violations that occurred before 1970.
The original legislation failed to live up to its promise, according to a U. S. Senate review of the law. There has been only one successful prosecution as result of the bill. The Senate also noted other challenges such as the Fifth Amendment protection against double jeopardy and a pre-1994 five year statute of limitations on federal criminal civil rights charges.
“Ultimately, a DOJ report stated that it is unlikely that any of the remaining cases would be prosecuted,” the Senate reported.
The Cold Case Justice Initiative of the DOJ last year closed 115 of the 126 cases on their list, often without pursuing potential witnesses or victims’ family members, the Senate said.
Last year, civil right activists testified before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, that the DOJ and the FBI have not done enough to solve the murders of civil rights workers in the 1940s, 50s and 60s despite the Emmett Till legislation.
The murders of black men, women and children have been extensive and almost no perpetrators have been brought to justice.
Many lynching were extrajudicial but others were either organized or encouraged by law enforcement officials.
Congress passed the expanded Emmett Till legislation on Dec. 13th. The legislation was introduced into the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate bill, S. 2854, and House bill, H. R. 5067, require the Department of Justice to reopen and review cases closed without an in-person investigation conducted by the DOJ or the FBI. The DOJ also must establish a task force to conduct a thorough investigation of Emmett Till Act Cases.
“Perhaps most significantly to us is that the FBI will be required to travel to the communities to do their investigative work, not simply read over old files from a desk in Washington and make a couple phone calls” said Janis McDonald, co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative, which is based at Syracuse University.
The DOJ must indicate the number of cases referred by a civil rights organization, an institution of higher education or a state or local law enforcement agency. The bill also requires the DOJ to report the number of cases that resulted in federal charges, the date charges were filed and whether DOJ declined to prosecute or participate in an investigation of a referred case and any activity on reopened cases.
In addition, the law enforcement agencies must coordinate information sharing, hold accountable perpetrators or accomplices in unsolved civil rights murders and comply with Freedom Information Act requests.
The legislation also allows DOJ to award grants to civil rights organizations, institutions of higher education and other eligible entities for expenses associated with investigating murders under the Emmett Till Act.