WASHINGTON-- On Saturday December 10th in its final session of the 114th Congress, the Senate passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016 (S.2854/H.R.5067). In the Senate the bill was led by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO). In the House, original sponsors were Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), and Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI).
Before the passage of major civil rights legislation in the 1960s, hundreds of racially suspicious crimes were committed in this country, and few attempts to prosecute them were ever pursued. Tuskegee Institute once kept a record of verified lynchings in the United States from 1877 to 1950. The institute documented that nearly 4000 mainly unprosecuted civil rights crimes occurred during that period. Many American families continue to pass down stories of loss and disappearance even today without knowing the truth about what actually happened to their loved ones.
PRIMARY GOALS OF THE BILL
The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act represents a critical opportunity to right these wrongs committed, primarily against African Americans, but also against people of diverse backgrounds. In some cases, individuals still remain who were witnesses to these crimes or who can help provide evidence regarding these incidents. This bill reauthorizes and updates the original legislation that was signed into law in 2008. It seeks to respond to the concerns of victims' family members and strengthen collaboration between the Justice Department, the FBI, State and local law enforcement, and advocates to pursue these cold cases. There is a collective goal to seek the truth about this long-standing tragedies and hold the perpetrators and orchestrators of these atrocities accountable. This reauthorization also seeks to respond to the concerns of advocates regarding the implementation of the original legislation.
BI-PARTISAN and BI-CAMERAL STATEMENTS OF SUPPORT
"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. We also worked across the aisle and across the Dome to develop a bill that fulfills our promise to remain committed to the pursuit of truth on behalf of victims and their families. I am very pleased that Congress has passed this legislation and I look forward to the signature of President Barack Obama." Rep. John Lewis - GA
“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. 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.” Sen. Richard Burr - NC
“Too many families suffer from the unsolved murders of their loved ones during the civil rights era without receiving justice. The way to best serve these families is to provide our Federal government with the tools it needs to investigate these unsolved crimes, and to hopefully, bring some sense of closure for these families. I thank Congressman Lewis for his tireless work on behalf of the families of these victims of unsolved murders from the civil rights era and I am proud to stand with him on this effort.” Sen. Patrick Leahy - VT
“This legislation brings justice and closure to the families and communities affected by the heinous acts of violence and hatred that are a stain on our nation’s history. The bill will help us continue the critical work of better investigating and solving these crimes, no matter how long ago they occurred, and I’m thrilled we’ve finally been able to carry it across the finish line.” Sen. Claire McCaskill - MO
“The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act sets out to investigate racially-motivated murders. Sadly, there is still more work to be done and it’s important that we reauthorize this bill so that the FBI and DOJ can continue investigating unsolved crimes.” Sen. Roy Blunt - MO
“As an original cosponsor of the Emmett Till Reauthorization Act, I’m pleased to see my colleagues came together and supported this important bill. This bipartisan legislation will provide for a sustained, well-coordinated effort to investigate and prosecute unsolved civil rights-era crimes. There are hundreds of cold cases from the civil rights era that have never been solved and it is my hope that we are able to bring justice to the victims’ families.” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner - WI
"As we work to address current questions about racial violence and civil rights, we should be mindful of our history and why so many in the African-American community raise the issue of whether black lives matter. Passage of the original Emmett Till Act represented a commitment to resolving the unanswered questions from one of the darkest periods in modern American history. This bipartisan reauthorization represents a further investment in our history and will allow the Department of Justice to resolve remaining issues." Rep. John Conyers, Jr. - MI
MAJOR PROVISIONS OF THE LEGISLATION
- This bill requires the Department of Justice and FBI to consult with civil rights organizations, universities, and other entities that have also been gathering evidence in these cold cases;
- Provides clearer direction and improved coordination between federal, state, and local law enforcement and the activists, advocates, and academics working on these issues;
- Strengthens the Department of Justice’s reporting requirements;
- Expands the time span of cases to be considered by ten years, to include all cases that occurred not later than December 31, 1979;
- Eliminates the sunset provision in the original bill;
- Encourages the Department of Justice to review specific closed cases that warrant further investigation;
- Maintains the previous investigation structure and funding levels; and
- Clarifies the law’s intent.