07.15.16

Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act Passes Senate

WASHINGTON – Last night, the Senate approved the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016, S.2854. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-MO), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), introduced this bipartisan, bicameral legislation in April of this year. The House bill, H.R. 5067, is led by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). 

Before the passage of major civil rights legislation in the 1960s, hundreds of racially suspicious crimes were committed in this country, and many cases remain unsolved to this day. This bill calls on the Department of Justice and FBI to consult with advocacy organizations, universities, and other entities that have also been gathering evidence on cold cases from the 1960s and beyond. The bill also recognizes the potential for prosecutions at the state level, and seeks to facilitate the state and federal government collaboration toward this end.

“There are still too many unsolved murders and too many families who do not know the truth about what happened to their loved ones,” said Senator Burr. “This remains deeply troubling, but I know that this bill will help bring the truth to light and hold those accountable for atrocities committed decades ago. I am pleased the Senate has passed this bill, as it is an important part of the legacy of Emmett Till and all the other Americans who were brutally murdered and never received justice. While we can never right these unimaginable wrongs, we can reaffirm to future generations that every American is worthy of the law’s protection." 

“This is a big step forward,” said Senator McCaskill, a former Jackson County Prosecutor. “Now is not the time to let up on our efforts to bring justice and closure to families and communities affected by these heinous acts of violence and hatred, and I hope the Republican leaders in the U.S. House move with the same urgency as we’ve seen in the Senate.” 

“Too many families suffer from the unsolved murders of their loved ones during the civil rights era without receiving justice,” said Senator Leahy. “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 that the Senate has passed this important legislation today.” 

“The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act marked an important step toward getting the victims of racially-motivated crimes, and their families, the answers they deserve,” said Senator Blunt. “There is still much more work to be done, however, and I’m glad that the Senate acted today to reauthorize the legislation to continue supporting efforts to bring the perpetrators of these heinous crimes to justice.”

More details on the bill available here and Senator Burr introduced comments for the record here.

BACKGROUND

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.

MAJOR PROVISIONS OF THE LEGISLATION

  • This bill calls on the Department of Justice and FBI to consult with civil rights experts, universities, and other entities that have also been gathering evidence in these cold cases;
  • Provides clearer direction and improved coordination among federal, state, and local law enforcement and the families of victims, advocates, and academics working on these issues;
  • Strengthens the Department of Justice’s reporting requirements;
  • Eliminates the pre-1969 time limitation on investigations;
  • Eliminates the sunset provision in the original bill;
  • Asks the Department of Justice to review specific closed cases that warrant further investigation; 
  • Maintains the previous funding levels;
  • Establishes the process to reopen, review, and update the public on the cases previously closed and explain the outcome of cases referred to the Department of the Justice; and
  • Clarifies the law’s intent.