NationalPolitics

Congress Reauthorizes Emmett Till Cold-Case Bill

The civil rights community has reported that for every infamous killing that tore at the South in the 1950s and 1960s, there were many more that were barely noted or investigated.

In 2007, Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act to help bring these cases to light and seek justice for victims and their families.

Now, led by Reps. John Conyers (D-Michigan), John Lewis (D-Georgia) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), Congress has passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Reauthorization Act.

Rep. John Conyers, a civil rights activist and longtime congressman, co-sponsored the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act. (Courtesy photo)
Rep. John Conyers, a civil rights activist and longtime congressman, co-sponsored the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act. (Courtesy photo)

Senate action on the bill is anticipated before the end of the 114th Congress and the legislation’s sponsors are hoping it will be signed into law by President Barack Obama before the end of the year.

“Even after nearly a decade of effort by advocates and the Justice Department, it remains clear that much work remains to heal the wounds of this period of history,” said Conyers, who has been a major proponent of more than 100 pieces of critical civil rights legislation including the original Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. “To that end, the Till Reauthorization Act will create a formal framework for public engagement between the Department of Justice and cold case advocates to share information and review the status and closure of cases through 1980.”

The bill’s primary purpose is to provide federal resources to local jurisdictions in the resolution of civil rights-era cold cases.

It requires the Department of Justice and the FBI to consult with civil rights organizations, universities and other entities that have also been gathering evidence in cold cases.

The bill also provides clearer direction and improved coordination between federal, state and local law enforcement and the activists, advocates and academics working on these issues and it strengthens the DOJ’s reporting requirements.

Once signed into law, the bill would expand the time span of cases to be considered by 10 years, include all cases that occurred no later than Dec. 31, 1979, and encourage the DOJ to review specific closed cases that warrant further investigation.

Finally, the bill maintains the previous investigation structure and funding levels and clarifies the law’s intent.

“This reauthorization represents a recommitment to the original goals of the bill as well as the strengthening and clarification of the law, as called for by interested civil rights groups and families,” Conyers said. “We must never forget our nation’s dark past and should be mindful of our history and why so many in the African-American community raise the issue of whether black lives matter.

“Many civil rights era crimes were barely noted or investigated, and I believe the perpetrators of those crimes should be brought to justice, even 50 years later,” he said.

The title of the bill serves as a reminder of one of the many lives that was cut much too short because of racially motivated hate and violence, the three congressmen said in a joint statement.

Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African-American boy who in 1955 allegedly whistled at a white woman. A short time later, he was found tortured and murdered.

Despite overwhelming evidence, an all-white jury in Chicago acquitted his accused killers.

With concern about the new administration that’s set to begin in January, a senior Democrat staffer said whenever there is transition from one administration to the next, people are rightly concerned whether enforcement priorities will remain a focus.

Some in the civil rights community have already expressed concerns with President-elect Donald Trump’s selection for attorney general, an office that presides over the Justice Department.

“Concerns arise, but this cold-case legislation has always been bipartisan as it was signed by Republican President George W. Bush,” the staffer said.

This bipartisan legislation will provide for a sustained, well-coordinated effort to investigate and prosecute unsolved civil rights-era crimes, Sensenbrenner said.

“There are hundreds of cold cases from the civil rights era that have never been solved, and it is my hope that we are able to bring justice to the victims’ families,” he said.

When the original bill was signed into law, family members, academics, historians, lawyers and advocates began working to develop a full accounting for those longstanding, gross human and civil rights atrocities, said Lewis, who during the height of the civil rights movement was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The committee was largely responsible for organizing student activism throughout the movement, including sit-ins and other activities.

Lewis also served as a keynote speaker on the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

“The reauthorization that the House passed is a response to their appeals to make the law a better tool in their quest for justice,” Lewis said. “We took the time to research and study what happened after the original bill was signed into law.

“We listened to and were guided by the advocates, by law professors, by families, and by the press,” he said. “We worked across the aisle and across the Dome to develop a bill that fulfills our promise to never give up on this effort — to never abandon the pursuit of truth. I look forward to passage in the Senate and the signature of President Barack Obama.”

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Stacy M. Brown

I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.

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