Thursday, June 21, 2007

Atoning for the Sins of the Past

The gravestone of Emmett Till in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
Till was murdered in Mississippi in 1955.
Photograph by Ed Wagner/Chicago Tribune

Emmett Till was murdered 52 years ago. The death of the Chicagoland teenager at the hands of some of the worst examples our species has ever produced while visiting relatives in Mississippi in the summer of 1955 served to highlight for the nation the reality of life for blacks in the deep south, and fueled the civil rights movement.

The crime remains unsolved.

On Wednesday the House of Representatives passed nearly unanimously legislation to create a “Cold Case” squad within the Justice Department to pursue these decades-old murders. The Senate is expected to follow suit in short order. (I wish I could have faith in Justice right now. But alas…)

The legislation passed yesterday was introduced in the Senate during the 109th congress. The bipartisan bill was cosponsored by former Republican Senator Jim Talent of Missouri and Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

From McClatchy:

Alvin Sykes, a Kansas City civil rights activist, who encouraged Talent to spearhead the effort, called the bill's passage "a good day for justice."

"It's very important to this country that the U.S. Congress says for America that we need to take care of our unfinished business by bringing to the bar of justice any and all perpetrators who still may be alive who were involved in these lynchings so long ago," he said.

The bill is called the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, after a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago who was found murdered in 1955. He'd been visiting relatives in Mississippi and had whistled at a white woman in a grocery store the day of his death. His mutilated body was found later.

The case has never been solved. But public outrage surrounding the murder was one of many incidents that helped trigger the civil rights movement.

"This legislation helps rectify the inequities of the past and provides justice to those it has seemingly forgotten," said Republican Rep. Kenny Hulshof of Missouri, a co-sponsor of the bill. "The passage of time is no reason to deny justice."

The bill designates officials within the civil rights sections of the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate and prosecute unsolved cases that occurred before 1970 and resulted in death.

The convictions of now-old men in recent years for these heinous, all-too-human acts of the past are welcome news to me and I hope that many more of these unsolved crimes are prosecuted and convictions secured. That they have lived free for so long is offense enough. The ones still living must not be allowed to die free.

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