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.