Sixty-one years after Emmett Till was brutally killed, a push is underway to pass legislation that bears his name.
In 2008, Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Crimes Act, which authorized the FBI to investigate cold cases from the unpunished civil rights era killings before 1970.
The Senate has already reauthorized the bill, which has been expanded to include the release of more information on these killings. The House has not acted.
Alvin Sykes of Kansas City, architect of the original bill, said the legislation would help transform “the poison coming out of Till’s murder … into the medicine of justice for countless victims of racially motivated murders.”
Airickca Gordon-Taylor, cousin of Emmett Till, said in a statement that “Mamie Till Mobley would be humbly proud that her son’s memory is continued so honorably. My family shares a membership within a community that lives with memories that never turn cold and our legacies of pain have no sunset. That’s why I am extremely pleased that two of the major provisions of the Till Bill 2 will eliminate the 10-year sunset provision for the existence of the original law and lift the 1969 time limit on cases under consideration and extend it indefinitely into the future.”
An all-white jury acquitted J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant of Till’s Aug. 28, 1955, slaying — only for the half-brothers to confess to the killing months later to Look magazine.
Till’s death helped propel the modern civil rights movement. Many activists, including U.S Rep. John Lewis, one of the bill’s sponsors, have pointed to the killing as a seminal event in their lives.
To date, the FBI has investigated 126 civil rights cases and has closed almost all of them.
The only conviction that could be counted under the Till Act came in 2010 when former Alabama State Trooper Bonard Fowler pleaded guilty to misdemeanor manslaughter and served five months in jail for the 1965 killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was involved in voting rights activities in Selma.
An Alabama district attorney had reopened the case after reading journalist John Fleming’s interview with Fowler.
In 2011, Concordia Sentinel editor Stanley Nelson reported that Arthur LeonardSpencer, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, had bragged to family members that he had been involved in setting the 1964 fire that killed Frank Morris, an African-American who operated a shoe shop in Ferriday, Louisiana.
After that revelation, a series of Louisiana grand juries, headed by a Justice Department attorney, began to investigate. Spencer died in May 2013 before any charges were brought.
After his death, the FBI announced there was “no credible evidence” that Spencer was involved in the fire.
Nelson questioned that determination and said some grand jurors complained to him they were never given an opportunity to vote.
While the Justice Department’s latest report concluded it was “unlikely” any remaining cases could be prosecuted, officials at the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University’s College of Law say they have found nearly 200 additional victims of racially motivated killings that have yet to be investigated.
“Much work remains to be done to investigate the killings and disappearances of victims of racially motivated violence during the civil rights era,” said the center’s co-director and law professor Paula Johnson.
The reauthorized Till bill calls for a full accounting of all victims and a greater release of information under the Freedom of Information Act after cases are closed, enabling family members, advocates, journalists, academics and others to better analyze the killings.
Nelson, author of the upcoming book on his investigations, “Devils Walking: Klan Murders Along the Mississippi in the 1960s,” hopes the individual files of Klansmen would be included in such a release, he said. “Getting those individual files in a timely fashion remains a problem today.”