By Kaitlyn D’Onofrio
This week Congress passed an amended version of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act. It now awaits approval from President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it.
The amendment of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, known as the Emmett Till Act, “expands the responsibilities of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to include the investigation and prosecution of criminal civil rights statutes violations that resulted in a death.”
The amendment will require the DOJ and FBI to investigate crimes that occurred up until December 31, 1979. As it stands now, the Emmett Till Act only covers crimes that occurred before 1970, during the period considered the Civil Rights era. Previous cases that were closed but not fully investigated will also be reopened.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who first introduced the bill in 2007, said in a statement, “When this bill was signed into law, family members, academics, historians, lawyers, advocates began working to develop a full accounting for these long-standing, gross human and civil rights atrocities. The reauthorization passed by Congress is a response to their appeals to make the law a better tool in their quest for justice.”
Tuskegee Institute kept a record of verified lynchings that took place in the United States between 1877 and 1950. The records indicate that nearly 4,000 civil rights crimes — many of which were never prosecuted — were committed during that time.
According to Lewis’ website, the Emmett Till Act “represents a critical opportunity to right these wrongs committed, primarily against African Americans, but also against people of diverse backgrounds.” Witnesses or people with information pertaining to these cold cases could still be alive and could bring closure to family members of victims in these cold cases. And reopening previously uninvestigated or under investigated cold cases could produce leads that were never followed at the time the crimes took place.
“I am very pleased that Congress has passed this legislation and I look forward to the signature of President Barack Obama,” Lewis said.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) sponsored the new amended version of the bill.
“I am pleased that this bill is now finally heading to the President’s desk. Investigators can now work to discover the truth and to seek justice under our legal system for the families of these victims,” he said. “Every American is worthy of the protection of our laws.”
Till’s legacy and important place in Civil Rights Movement history remains just as relevant today as in 1955. Many people have drawn comparisons between Till and Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager who was gunned down in Florida.
Emmett Till’s Legacy and Symbolism in Civil Rights
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. The Chicago native, who was visiting relatives at the time, was kidnapped, mutilated and shot. His body was found floating in a river several days after he went missing. The perpetrators, who eventually confessed their crimes, were acquitted by an all-white jury.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted that Till’s casket be open at his funeral so people could see exactly what happened to her son. Pictures of young Till’s mutilated body shocked the nation. Till’s death was a pivotal event of the Civil Rights Movement and brought to the forefront issues of racial injustice.