US to Continue Investigating Civil Rights Murders

03 January, 2017

The United States will continue to investigate unsolved murders of black people during the civil rights period.

President Barack Obama recently signed into law a bill that continues a 2008 law requiring the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the crimes.

The bill's sponsor is Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. Lewis, a civil rights leader during the 1960s, suffered a skull fracture when he was beaten by police in 1965 during a civil rights march in Alabama.

When the bill was first approved in 2008, Lewis hoped it would provide a "full accounting" of murders and other violence during America's civil rights era. Most victims were African-Americans, but non-black supporters of civil rights also were targeted.

Congressman John Lewis.
Congressman John Lewis.

Progress Has Been Slow

In a 2015 report, the Justice Department said little progress had been made.

The department said it investigated 113 unsolved cases dating from 1934 to 1967. The department said it completed 105 of the investigations.

The department reported that bringing criminal charges in any of the cases is "unlikely."

The Justice Department report said federal power is limited. It said federal hate crime laws took effect too late to apply to murders during the civil rights period.

It also said investigating old cases is difficult because "witnesses die or can no longer be located," people forget what they saw, and "evidence is destroyed or lost."

One Successful Prosecution

The Justice Department pointed to its successful criminal case against James Ford Seale. He was found guilty of federal kidnapping charges 42 years after prosecutors said he tortured and killed two black teenagers near the Mississippi-Louisiana border in 1964. Seale died in 2011. But that case was filed before the 2008 law took effect.

The department points to a successful state prosecution of a civil rights murder case after the law's passage.

Lewis said the new law passed by Congress and approved by President Obama improves the 2008 law. It requires the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, to work with civil rights groups and universities to find evidence.

The new law directs federal officials to work together with state and local law enforcement offices.

As supporters of the law point out, many crimes targeting blacks and other civil rights workers in the 1950s and 1960s were not investigated by local police agencies.

"Investigators can now work to discover the truth and to seek justice under our legal system for the families of these victims," said Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina. "Every American is worthy of the protection of our laws."

The bill is named for Emmett Till. Till was a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago. He was brutally murdered in 1955 while visiting family in Mississippi. Reports at the time said some whites were angry over reports he had flirted with a white woman.

An all-white jury in Mississippi found the two white men charged with Till's murder not guilty.

Dark Period in Modern American History

Congressman John Conyers of Michigan said the Emmett Till Act is an effort to bring to justice people responsible for crimes from one of the darkest periods in modern American history.

Law students at Syracuse University in New York have joined the investigations. Led by two professors, Paula Johnson and Janis McDonald, Syracuse law students found 196 possible cases for criminal charges.

McDonald is disappointed that the Justice Department has not moved on any of the 196 cases. She said the new law extends the time in which crimes can be investigated past the original deadline of 1969 by 10 years.

Her hope is that the new Trump administration will want to show the public its willingness to fight racial injustice by bringing charges against people who escaped charges in the past.

Johnson said that, when she and McDonald travel, they often hear from "relatives who believed they lost loved ones due to racial violence."

"We take their claims seriously and conduct our own investigations and we'll continue to do so," Johnson said.

I'm Alice Bryant. And I'm Bruce Alpert.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

skull fracture - n. a blow to the head strong enough to break a bone in the cranial portion of the skull

accounting - n. a report of what happened

locate - v. to find

file –v. to give a document to an official for consideration

brutally - adv. done in an extremely cruel or harsh way

flirt - v. to behave in a way that shows an attraction for someone but is not meant to be taken seriously

due - v. required or expected to happen

conduct - v. to do something