Lawmakers back program to probe Jim Crow-era lynchings

BY ANNA DOUGLAS
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of lawmakers are close to extending the life of a Department of Justice program designed to solve cold cases where racism was likely a motive.

The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act — named for a 14-year-old African-American teen who was brutally kidnapped and lynched by two White men in Mississippi in 1955 — could be one of the final pieces of legislation President Barack Obama signs into law before leaving office. The U.S. House and Senate passed the bill this month by voice vote, with unanimous support.

The bill was shepherded through the House by civil rights era hero and Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat who has said the effort to solve racially suspicious crimes is essential to heal America from past injustices and heinous acts of violence against African-Americans.

The Emmett Till bill, Lewis has said, is one way to “wash away these stains on our democracy.”

Above is the mud-caked grave marker for 14-year-old Emmett Till, photographed on May 5, 2009 at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. The teen’s murder in Mississippi in 1955 is considered one of the events that accelerated the Civil Rights Movement.
(DAVID PIERINI/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS)

‘Sunset’ provision
The Reauthorization of the original law from 2008 would allow Justice Department attorneys and investigators to expand their work and help more victims and their surviving families.

The pending legislation would add 10 years to the timeframe the Justice Department considers, allowing investigators to take on cases of crimes through 1979 instead of the current 1969 end date.

Lawmakers also want the original “sunset” provision in the 2008 law removed. Other updates to the legislation include clarifying the Department of Justice’s reporting requirements for investigations and ensuring the federal office works closely with state officials, local activists and other interested entities.

Work praised
In a statement following the bill’s passage in the Senate, one of its supporters, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, praised the ongoing work of civil rights workers.

“Investigators can now work to discover the truth and to seek justice under our legal system for the families of these victims,” Burr said.

“Every American is worthy of the protection of our laws. I want to thank the Till family, Alvin Sykes, congressman John Lewis, and all of the civil rights activists who helped make this law a reality.

Today’s victory is theirs.”

Other sponsors
Sykes, a justice and civil rights activist, inspired and championed the original Emmett Till legislation.

Other key sponsors of the legislation in the Senate this year include Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo. In the House, the bill’s original sponsors include Lewis and Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.

Proponents say the bill will enable the FBI and the Department of Justice to look into close to 200 cases of people targeted in racially suspicious violence.

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