Emmett Till, a black teenager who was lynched in the 1950s for flirting with a white woman, is still inspiring action 61 years later. Congress is weighing reauthorizing the Emmett Till Unsolved Crimes Act, which would push the Justice Department and FBI to investigate civil rights-related deaths even if they're decades old.
The United States Senate passed the reauthorization last month, so now advocates and lawmakers are working together to convince the House of Representatives the legislation should expand.
"We call on all justice seeking Americans to now strongly urge their congressmen to join the current 60 House co-sponsors of Till Bill 2 as soon as the House reconvenes in September," campaign president Alvin Sykes said in a news release. "We as a nation would continue to observe the poison coming out of Till’s murder in 1955 continuing to be transformed into the medicine of justice for countless victims of racially motivated murders indefinitely into the future."
Chicago native Till was visiting Mississippi in 1955 when, on a dare, he asked a white woman at a convenience store to go on a date with him. When her husband, Roy Bryant, found out, he and a relative kidnapped Till and beat him. Three days later, the boy's disfigured body was found in a river. The two men went on trial for murder and were found not guilty by an all-white jury, according to the History Channel. A month later, they confessed in the press — but couldn't be punished at that point.
The case helped set off the civil rights movement and later inspired the bill, which became law in 2008. It called in its text for a "sustained, well-coordinated, and well-funded effort to investigate and prosecute racially motivated murders that occurred on or before December 31, 1969." According to the Clarion-Ledger, as a result the FBI looked into more than 120 civil rights cases, which resulted in one conviction — a former state trooper who killed voting rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson.
The law's funding is set to run out next year, and the Justice Department claims it's finished, but activists say their work isn't over. The new version of the Till bill takes out the stipulation that the cases must have occurred before 1970, sets up a task force, extends funding and makes it easier to request case files.
"Racial justice remains an imperative for U.S. society," Janis McDonald, the co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University.
The bill is supported by Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., as well as Reps. John Lewis, D-Ga., Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., according to a news release.