The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act, passed in the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent on September 24, could benefit the investigations of local cold cases such as that of Frank Morris, the Ferriday shoe shop owner who was murdered in December 1964.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) was a cosponsor of the Till legislation which authorizes funding for the Justice Department's prosecution of unsolved Civil Rights-era murders and strengthens the coordination between federal, state and local law enforcement to solve such crimes. The bill adds resources for the Justice Department to more effectively investigate and prosecute unsolved cases involving racially-motivated killings that took place before January 1, 1970.
"The 1964 murder of Frank Morris, who died from burns sustained in an arson attack on his shoe shop, is a civil rights crime left unsolved for more than 40 years," Landrieu said. "The perpetrators of this outrageous act must be brought to justice, which is necessary for Frank’s family and the Ferriday community."
Landrieu said "civil rights cases across the country must be investigated and tried to the fullest extent of the law. The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act will help us solve crimes like the Frank Morris case."
The Till legislation is also designed to provide financial assistance in prosecuting such cases on the local level. It may help in the case of former Klansman James Ford Seale, whose federal conviction last year for the May 1964 murders of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Moore from Franklin County, Miss., was overturned in September by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.
Mississippi Sixth Circuit Court District Attorney Ronnie Harper of Natchez says Seale could be tried on state charges in his district depending on many legal and jurisdictional issues. But no decision will be made until the government's appeal of the 5th Circuit's ruling is heard.
According to Professor Janis McDonald, a co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University College of Law, "The Justice Department will have the discretion to pursue prosecutions on federal crimes or to work jointly with local prosecutors and provide funding for that purpose."
She said it "will be important for the community to hold the Justice Department accountable for fully investigating all of the deaths that occurred during this time period and not just a representative few."
The bill, she added, includes $10 million per year for the next 10 years, and an extra $2 million a year allocated for the Justice Department specifically for local prosecutions of related murder charges.
McDonald said "there is an additional $1.5 million a year to the Justice Department Community Relations Service to allocate for outreach to community and families. The details of how that will be implemented remain unclear. This bill provides a total of $13.5 million a year for 10 years devoted to investigating and hopefully prosecuting."
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) introduced the Till legislation in February 2007, which quickly passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously and passed the House of Representatives on June 20, 2007, by a vote of 422-2. Rep. John Lewis of George introduced the bill in the House.
“At long last, I am proud to say that we’ve taken one step closer to righting the wrongs of the past and bringing to justice those who have perpetrated heinous crimes based on racial hatred,” said Dodd. “By passing the Emmett Till bill, we send the message that we will never forget the horrible crimes that occurred in our past and that will do everything in our power to apprehend and prosecute the criminals that committed them.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who blocked passage of the bill for more than a year, said he was "disappointed by the majority’s cynical manipulation of this issue and willingness to exploit for partisan gain the efforts of those who worked for many decades to prosecute these crimes. Cutting lesser priorities within the bloated federal budget could have paid for this legislation, but congressional leaders refused to eliminate pet projects back home or demand the Department of Justice direct funds to pay for solving these civil rights violations."
“For the victims of these decades-old crimes, justice delayed is justice denied," Coburn said in a press release.
The legislation will provide the Department of Justice and the FBI the authority needed to reopen Civil Rights-era criminal cases which have gone cold by designating a Deputy Chief in the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ and a Supervisory Special Agent in the Civil Rights Unit of the FBI. These individuals will be tasked with spearheading and coordinating efforts by federal, state, and local law enforcement officers and prosecutors to bring long-time fugitives to justice. Both positions will focus on investigating and prosecuting the unsolved murder cases that occurred prior to 1970, during the Civil-Rights era.
The bill was named in honor of 14-year-old Emmitt Till of Chicago, who was kidnapped, tortured and beaten to death on Aug. 28, 1955, in Money, Miss., by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. Till, visiting relatives in Tallahatchie County, was killed because he allegedly wolf-whistled at the wife of one of the men. Bryant and Milam later confessed to the murder after being exonerated by an all-white jury.
Bob Dylan wrote a song on Till's murder in the 1960s, entitled, "The Death of Emmitt Till." The last verse reads:
"This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
"That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
"But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give,
"We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live."