Historian Renee Romano’s Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders, a paperback edition of which we’ll publish this spring, investigates the ways in which reopening the cases of the civil rights era’s most infamous unsolved killings has resulted in complicated conflicts between legal and social justice. Below, she details the practical disappointments of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act to date, outlines advances written into the recently reauthorized bill, and explains why this sort of criminal justice focus still falls short of addressing a history of systemic racism.
On December 16, 2016, in one of his last official acts as President of the United States, Barack Obama signed into law a reauthorization of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act. Originally passed in 2007, the law had been scheduled to expire in 2017. The passage of Till Bill 2, as the new law has been dubbed, reflects a long and committed effort by advocates and activists to not only extend the original act, but to push Congress and federal authorities towards a fuller accounting of the racial violence of the civil rights era and the near-complete failure of the state and federal legal system to protect black lives in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet while activists and supporters of the law (such as Syracuse University’s Cold Case Justice Initiative, the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, and Alvin Sykes) succeeded to some extent in their goal to push the government to develop a more complete record of racial violence, the new act represents just one small step towards the kind of officially sanctioned exploration of America’s violent racial history that it deserves and demands.
The original Emmett Till Act, which passed Congress almost unanimously amid great fanfare in 2007, aimed to create a government infrastructure to help coordinate and provide resources for what until then had been a relatively decentralized and ad hoc movement to revisit, and when possible prosecute, unsolved or unpunished civil rights era murders. That movement was launched in 1994, when a Mississippi state jury finally convicted Byron de la Beckwith of the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers. With this example of a successful prosecution for a decades-old civil rights murder, family members, movement activists, journalists, and academics began to lobby state and federal authorities to reopen other old civil rights murder cases. By 2008, some of the most infamous murder cases of the civil rights era had been reopened—including those of Emmett Till, the four girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, and the slaying of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi in 1964—and more than twenty men had been convicted and sentenced to jail time for their role in nine different murder cases.
The challenging nature of these investigations and the immense cost of pursuing decades-old cold cases led activists to propose the Till Bill in 2007. The law directed the FBI and the Department of Justice to coordinate the investigation and prosecution of civil rights era murders that took place before December 31, 1969. It urged federal authorities to work with state and local law enforcement to investigate and prosecute these crimes and provided up to $10 million a year for ten years to help pay the costs of pursuing cases.
But as I argue in my 2014 book, Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders, the activists who fought hard for the original law sought more than the assistance of federal authorities in investigating and prosecuting cases. They hoped that the new law would compel federal authorities to develop a more complete historical record of the extensive racial violence of the 1950s and 1960s with the ultimate goal of reframing Americans’ understandings of the depth, power, and individual, governmental, and institutional nature of racism. As Alvin Sykes, the self-educated activist who led the national effort to pass the 2007 law, put it, “From the beginning, our focus was not just to prosecute cases but to find the truth.” While the law in no way promoted the idea of an American-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, activists hoped that it would at least further one aspect of a truth process by pushing the federal government to assemble a thorough record of civil rights era racial violence.
It was the law’s failure to do so that inspired efforts to revise important parts of the legislation in the reauthorization. The 2007 Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act quickly became a disappointment to those who had fought hardest for it. Not only did the legislation fail to lead to many prosecutions—at best only two cases were prosecuted with the assistance of the Till Act and both of those were underway by the time the law was passed—but the Department of Justice and FBI assembled what activists saw as an incomplete list of unresolved murders that the federal agencies moved quickly to investigate and close. By 2016, when the act was set to expire, the FBI had closed all but eight of the 126 cases it had investigated under the law. In the vast majority of these cases, the FBI declared that prosecutions were no longer possible because of either a lack of evidence or because all the perpetrators had died. Yet those most involved in these investigations on the ground insisted that there were many more cases worthy of federal investigation and that some of the cases the authorities had declared closed were in fact still prosecutable.
In seeking reauthorization of the law, activists like Sykes sought to expand its mandate, to promote a much fuller accounting of racial violence, and to compel federal authorities to work more closely with non-governmental advocacy groups pursuing these cases on the ground. They won important concessions—the law now requires federal authorities to meet regularly with non-governmental groups like the Cold Case Justice Initiative and other “eligible entities” to share information and discuss the status of the Department’s work. It extends the law’s mandate to investigate not only murders but also “disappearances” and it makes clear that one goal of the legislation is to “support the full accounting of all victims whose deaths or disappearances were the result of racially motivated crimes.” It also requires that the FBI “expeditiously comply” with Freedom of Information Act requests related to civil rights era crimes and that it develop a “singular, publicly accessible repository of these disclosed documents.” While advocates of the bill failed in their efforts to dramatically expand the scope of the law by removing the stipulation that it only applied to racial crimes from before 1970—a step that would have meant that this law would apply to cases like those of Eric Garner and Michael Brown—the legislation does extend the time frame to include racially motivated murders up until December 31, 1979.
The Till Bill 2, if fully implemented, could lead to a much more robust public record of racially motivated violence in the era from before 1980. Yet there is a limit to the kind of historical truth that can be expected out of even this expanded Till Bill. Like its predecessor, the act is framed around the need to investigate and prosecute individual instances of racial violence. That criminal justice framing, as I explain in Racial Reckoning, rarely inspires the kind of historical investigations that center the role of institutions or the practice of systemic racism. As the Black Lives Matter movement has made very clear, the cultural and institutional practices that lead to a devaluing of black life are still very much in operation today. They reflect deeply held stereotypes that grew out of practices of white supremacy from the earliest days of the nation’s founding. Grappling with unsolved civil rights era murders is a vital project, but as Bryan Stephenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative argues, if we hope to achieve racial justice in the present, we need to fundamentally “change the way we talk about racial history and contextualize contemporary racial issues.” Let’s hope the new Till Bill will provide a first step down that long road.