Obama Signs Last-Minute “Civil Rights Crimes” Bill. “Cold Cases” Warm At Last?
Just before leaving office, President Obama has made a statement for civil rights and on that, supporters of it would say, honors the many lives lost on the road to achieving them for all Americans. The Emmet Till Bill — or “The Emmet Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Reauthorization Act of 2016” — would extend the period of time around crimes that have been unsolved, that involved the deaths of civil rights activists.
Obama’s support for the Emmet Till Bill, supporters say, recognizes the long line of deaths and crimes that preceded today’s Black Lives Matter movement. This bill would address the long history of crimes against black communities and leaders that, its drafters charge, have been neglected by former and current political officials.
This bill, signed by President Obama just before the New Year, is named after Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy who was murdered in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. Till’s case was one of many racially motivated cases that authorities at the time did not thoroughly investigate. Those responsible for Till’s murder confessed years after. But many other similar files went “cold,” and the judicial system did not find justice for the victims of these early hate crimes.
The Bill updates and sustains a 2007 law, with the same name, that was set to expire next year. The original law required the Department of Justice to continue to investigate racially motivated murders that occurred through the 60’s, such as Emmet Till’s case. The 2016 version of the bill, however, extends the time period for “cases of interest” by ten years — extending to 1980.
There are over 100 cases that would fit this expanded definition of cases that would have to be looked at again. The bill instructs local authorities to meet with the Department of Justice, universities, civil rights organizations, and victims’ families, to share relevant information about the cases, and to give updated reports on all cases that would fall under the Emmet Till Act.
Is this a waste of police time, as critics of the bill would charge? Reinvestigating these “cold cases” has indeed shown positive results in the past, even though decades may separate the original crimes, from belated investigation and convictions. In 1994, for instance, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted at last for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, a civil rights icon. In the early 2000’s, Federal law enforcement finally prosecuted two men in the horrendous 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four young girls. Another victory followed in 2005 with a conviction at last for the murder of three activists during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Senators John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia who sponsored the bill, and Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, are the two statesmen responsible for getting the bill through Congress and onto the President’s desk. Senator Lewis — an anointed civil rights giant — marched and sat-in at the height of the most turbulent years of the civil rights movement, and supporters would say that Lewis knows well the necessity of this legislation. For him these crimes are not “cold cases”, they are memories. About the bill, Rep. Lewis stated on the floor of the Senate:
“We can never heal from injuries of the past by sweeping hundreds of crimes under the rug. We have an obligation, a mission, a mandate to continue the effort required to wash away these stains on our democracy.”
With any promise of justice, there is still the difficulty in finding leads in aging cases where evidence may not have been well-documented, as long as fifty years ago. The hope with this iteration of the bill, is that the combined efforts of local authorities, the FBI, Department of Justice and — most importantly — with research from universities and civil rights organizations, America can do more than remember, but can also re-energize this process of. as Senator Burr put it, “uncovering and confronting the truth about these crimes.”.
We often hear calls for justice from activists, but in this crucial moment, the government is finally admitting past missteps: both Congress and President Obama have taken steps to right the wrongs of the past by advancing this new bill.
Do you think these cases should be reopened? Or do you think that the police should spend their resources on cases that affect the living? Do you support the Emmet Till Act? Why or why not?
Use the BillCam above to cast your own vote on this issue, and to share the bill throughout your social networks to raise awareness and gather action steps. You can tweet at the bill sponsor, Senator John Lewis [D-GA], and let him know what you think. Share your thoughts with us too, by joining the conversation in the comments section below.