By Brian Beutler
Who says bipartisanship is dead?
Well, actually, a lot of people do. And they’re mainly correct. But every now and then, some animating force—a just cause, a moving story, an unexpected event—will, for better or worse, bring warring political parties into alignment. This week, for the better, that force was Emmett Till.
In 1955, Till, a 14-year-old black kid from Chicago spending a summer with his family in the South, was savagely murdered by two white men who dumped his body into the Mississippi Delta. The crime was reprehensible and the suspects clearly culpable, but nonetheless a jury of 12 white men found them innocent. They also touched off the civil rights movement.
This week, as the House Oversight committee jousted angrily over the guilt or innocence of a Bush appointee and as the Senate sparred over an energy bill, members of the House Judiciary Committee came together to advance a bill that seeks to provide closure to the family members of men like Till, many of whom are still alive and hopeful for justice.
The bill, called the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, is a clean piece of legislation that will do exactly what its official heading says: It will create “an Unsolved Crimes Section in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and an Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Investigative Office in the Civil Rights Unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
To do that, it authorizes $10 million annually to federal agencies, which will be tasked with unearthing cold cases from the civil rights era and investigating them fully. Most of the crimes from the aftermath of Till’s death have seen their statutes of limitations elapse. For the most part, the exceptions are murders, many of which took place in Southern states like Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
Brenda Jones, a spokeswoman for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)—one of the bill’s chief sponsors—pointed out that, counter-intuitively, the bill’s greatest merits are not in what it mandates, but in what it does not. “It allows $1.5 million for community relations, so that federal officials collaborate with state and local officials,” she says. “It allows them to turn to engage the federal government for help when [solving] the crimes require greater resources or experience.” Moreover, it provides an additional $2 million a year to local and state authorities—on top of the collaborative assistance—to expand their operations.
There are nearly 100 stale cases that will immediately benefit from the bill’s provisions and hundreds more that could potentially be brought back to life. Rita Schwerner Bender, whose husband Michael was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan for registering black voters in Mississippi, points out that there have been 518 unsolved lynchings in Mississippi since 1955. As evidence has withered and witnesses have all but disappeared, many of those cases desperately require the sort of help that the so-called “Till Bill” will offer once signed into law.
The hearings this week weren’t without moments of politicking. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) asked one witness whether the bill would help solve cases of black on white violence. The answer is that it will in theory, but that in spirit—and likely in practice—it will not. That low moment was redeemed by Pence himself when, moments later, he recounted the story of his own awakening to the viciousness of that era—of attending a church in the South built by a community of devoutly religious people who had somehow justified to themselves the idea that the same church should be segregated. As he told it, he held back tears.
The bill, first conceived by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), didn’t go anywhere in the 109th Congress. But everybody—congressmen, senators, aides and observers—seems confident that this time around it will sail through.
“The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act is an important step towards finally closing an ugly chapter in American history, a time when crimes against civil rights activists and African-Americans were routinely swept under the rug,” says Caroline Frederickson, ACLU’s Washington director. “This bill upholds the integrity of the judicial system and ensures that those guilty of civil rights crimes will finally be held accountable. We are encouraged that the House and Senate Judiciary Committees voted in favor of the bill, and we strongly urge their colleagues to do the same when it comes to the floor.”
If they do follow suit, then stories like this one might not be so unusual in the months to come.
Brian Beutler, Washington DC Correspondent for The Media Consortium