Mr. Speaker, in June of 2007, this body passed and the President subsequently signed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act. Since that time, the Department of Justice and cold case advocates have reviewed hundreds of cases in a search for justice and a sense of closure for the families of those who fell victim to racial violence in one of the most tumultuous periods of this nation’s history.
For those who did not live through the civil rights era, it is difficult to understand the combined climate of excitement for change that co-existed with one of fear and violence. Simply for acting on their ideals of racial equality, innocent people – young and old, black and white – were struck down.
In some cases, state and local law enforcement colluded with the perpetrators of anti-civil rights violence. And attempts at justice often proved to be a charade - ending with jury nullification or tampering by racist citizens’ councils.
The civil rights community has reported that for every infamous killing that tore at the South in the 1950s and ’60s, there were many more that were barely noted or investigated. We passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act in 2007 to help bring these cases to light and seek justice for victims and their families.
Even after nearly a decade of effort by advocates and the Justice Department, it remains clear that much work remains to heal the wounds of this period of history. To that end, the Till Reauthorization Act will create a formal framework for public engagement between the Department of Justice and cold case advocates to share information and review the status and closure of cases through 1980.
The legislation further authorizes appropriations and tasks the Department’s Community Relations Service with bringing together law enforcement agencies and communities to address the tensions raised by Civil Rights Era crimes.
The title of this bill serves as a reminder of one of the many lives that was cut much too short as a result of racially motivated hate and violence. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African American young man from Chicago who allegedly whistled at a white woman. Shortly thereafter he was found murdered and tortured.
Though his accused killers were tried, they were acquitted by an all-white jury. Despite attempts at gaining a Federal indictment in the case, his torture and murder remain unpunished. While his family still grieves, they have channeled their sorrow into activism for those victims still seeking justice.
I believe that it remains important that the perpetrators of civil rights era crimes be brought to justice, even 50 years later. While justice has been delayed for the victims of these crimes, the fact that we are raising these cold cases breathes new life into our justice system. Ultimately, that commitment bodes well for our collective future and reconciliation within these communities.
Accordingly, I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting this important legislation and I reserve the balance of my time.
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