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CCJI: Emmett Till Act Passes House, Heads Back to Senate for Action

Posted on Thursday 12/8/2016
Emmitt Till

The House of Representatives passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016 by voice vote during its evening session on December 7. But unless further action is taken this week by the U.S. Senate, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2008 will expire in 2017. The Act recognized the need for an “urgent” and “thorough” federal investigation and possible prosecution of living suspects involved in the civil rights era racially motivated killings. 

“We here at the Cold Case Justice Initiative are glad to see the positive movement of the Reauthorization Act,” says Paula C. Johnson, co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) at Syracuse University College of Law.  “Some people ask us why this is important. If you speak to the families who suffered the loss of a loved one by a brutal, racially motivated murder never thoroughly investigated or prosecuted or you talk to a community that was terrorized by uncontrolled and unpunished racist violence, you begin to understand that a humane society that prioritizes justice has no choice but to pursue these cases until it is no longer possible.” 

Johnson, who is also a Professor of Law, joined with Alvin Sykes, President of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign to lead a coalition, including the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation and Mamie Till Mobley foundation, as lead by relatives and descendants of Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley, civil rights groups, journalists, law students, and concerned citizens to work with a bipartisan number of co-sponsors in both the House and the Senate to continue this important legislation.  

The Senate passed a reauthorization bill in July while the House of Representatives adopted a slightly different version last night; a required ten-year sunset provision for any law referencing appropriations. While this alteration requires the Senate to approve the modified bill, Senate co-sponsors are prepared to seek the “hotline” process to fast track this noncontroversial renewal for a vote before finishing their work next week.  

“For people like Janice Cameron and Nedra Walker of the Atlanta, Georgia area, the reauthorization means even more,” says CCJI’s other co-director, Janis McDonald. “The original act did not provide coverage for those killings that occurred after December 31, 1969, thus excluding the suspicious disappearances and deaths of their fathers, Leroy Holloway and Robert Walker as well as three other friends, termed the ‘Atlanta Five Fishermen’.” 

The Atlanta Five traveled to Pensacola, Florida in November 1974. “Under circumstances suggesting that they were kidnapped, tortured and murdered, the men never received the thorough investigation their racially motivated killings deserved,” says McDonald. The reauthorization allows the Department of Justice to investigate cases through 1979.

More than thirty-two thousand people have signed a petition in support of the Reauthorization Act on Change.Org to date. In addition to the CCJI, the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Urban League, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights as well as other educational institutions including Northeastern University’s Civil Rights & Restorative Justice Project and Emory University’s Georgia Civil Rights Cold Case Project worked together with congressional aides to secure passage of the Act. 

Alvin Sykes and the Emmett Till Justice Campaign that he directs received congressional praise in 2008 for his efforts in reaching agreement with now former Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to remove a hold on the original legislation and support the Act.  Similarly, he reached out to Republican Senator Robert Burr of North Carolina to enlist his assistance in co-sponsoring and guiding the reauthorization to its successful passage.  Since that time the staffs of Sen. Burr, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D- VT) on the Senate Side and Rep. John Lewis and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) on the House side have worked together to pass this Act. 

Georgia Congressman John Lewis sponsored the original Act along with Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd who introduced the original bill in the Senate. Congressman Lewis introduced the reauthorization act in the House in April of 2016. Both the original Act of 2008 and the Reauthorization Act of 2016 displayed a bipartisan effort in Congress to enact these laws.

“We urge the Senate to move quickly and pass the modified bill as it retains many of the stronger provisions families, advocates and civil rights organizations have been pushing for,” says Johnson. “The passage of this Act may further allow for the perpetrators of these crimes to be brought to justice.”