In a year marked by political polarization and increasing racial tension, Emmett Till has become something of a unifying force on Capitol Hill, harmonizing the dissonant voices on the left and right in the ongoing conversation on racial justice. At least by one measure, anyway--a measure that provides an opportunity to reset the race narrative. An opportunity and a challenge for the Republicans meeting this week in Cleveland to try to find a more expansive, more inclusive meaning for their emerging "law-and-order" presidential campaign.
In this regard, they might want to follow the lead of their fellows on Capitol Hill.
Just before hitting the lights late this past Thursday night on the way out on "convention" recess, the Republican-controlled Senate passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016. In a way, this measure can be seen as a legislative validation of the Black Lives Matter mantra--the first since the tragic recent shooting deaths in Baton Rouge, LA, Falcon Heights, MN, and Dallas, TX.
Approved by unanimous consent--as in full-body, bipartisan support--the new measure would extend the life of the 2008 Emmett Till Act that has provided $10 million a year to fund FBI investigations of cold cases of civil rights era murders. That original law is set to expire after next year.
The new law will never expire--assuming the House version, led by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) passes after members return in September. But the new act also will expand the period of coverage of the existing law, which limits jurisdiction to those cases arising before December 31, 1969. When signed into law, this new measure would continue to authorize and fund federal investigations of cold cases arising long after the civil rights era. Like those in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, if initial evidence of racial motive is discovered, but not fully established.
However quietly, Congress has made a statement with this bill, effectively advancing the national conversation on race in the most meaningful way possible. With action.
"This demonstrates the power of dialogue," Kansas City human rights activist Alvin Sykes says he told Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) in a congratulatory phone conversation on the success of their methodical strategic collaboration in moving the bill. "When you work together on common goals, you can accomplish anything," said Sykes, president of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, summarizing for me that conversation he had with Burr, chief Senate sponsor, who, along with original co-sponsors Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-MO), and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), introduced the Senate bill this past April.
The "power of dialogue." Yes. But this first victory also demonstrates something else. The embedded message here is that true leadership is not merely a function of tough, victim-blaming talk, marginalizing entire groups in our society in order to appear to "make America safe again." True leadership also is about reinforcing our national values of justice and equality by inspiring the public to value the traditionally marginalized in our society. Showing that their lives matter, too. And making it clear to all that, if you destroy a life through an act based on race hatred and power (the ultimate act of devaluation), you will be punished, no matter how long it takes, and irrespective of whether you wear a hood or a badge. Or both, as some did in the past. The point is that the Till Bill walks the talk forward.
Under the current authorization, the original also spearheaded by Sykes, the FBI has investigated 122 cold cases. The Syracuse University Cold Case Justice Initiative--of law school faculty and students--has provided documentation of around 200 additional cases in working with congressional leaders on the reauthorization bill.
"The young folks are really the true change agents," notes Sykes, sharing credit.
At least one significant prosecution resulted under the original authorization.
The 1965 shooting death of 26 year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson by Alabama State Trooper James Bonard Fowler is featured in the motion picture "Selma." The killing of Jackson in a Marion, Alabama, diner during a riotous police attack on peaceful nighttime voting rights demonstrators, was one of the events that inspired the Selma-to-Montgomery march led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The violent event also forecast the "Bloody Sunday" outcome on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The FBI investigation of this cold case under the current Till Act led to the 75 year-old Fowler's 2010 guilty plea to one count of second-degree manslaughter--some 45 years after he killed Jackson.
"We can never heal from the injuries of the past by sweeping hundreds of crimes under the rug," noted John Lewis in a statement in support of the House version of the Till Bill he introduced in April. "We have an obligation, a mission, and a mandate to continue the effort required to wash away these stains on our democracy," said Lewis, who was brutalized by Alabama troopers in that 1965 Edmund Pettus Bridge attack.
Not all cases under the Till act resulted in a successful prosecution. But critical missing information has been uncovered that has helped bring closure to a number of families of victims of racial murder and provided guidance to law enforcement in correcting official failures of the past. These are important ancillary benefits of the law.
"It's absolutely crucial to the rule of law that we take responsibility for admitting where we make mistakes and fix them," Burr told me in April, just after introducing the measure. "We can't reverse decisions that were made in the past. But we can take responsible action now as a nation to answer questions from the past whether law enforcement applies justice equally. That will make sure mistakes aren't made again."
It also will require a recognition of the reasons why justice has not been enforced equally, why the value of all lives has not been measured equally.
We see that so clearly in the case of Emmett Till. The international press attention drawn to the brutal 1955 lynching of 14 year-old Emmett and the acquittal of his murderers in the Mississippi Delta was called "the first big media event of the Civil Rights Movement," by the late journalist David Halberstam, who covered the trial.
Indeed, the case of Emmett Till was the first Black Lives Matter case. It inspired Rosa Parks and a mass movement that would start only three months later under the leadership of Dr. King.
Emmett would have turned 75 on Monday, July 25. We can only imagine what this bright, creative, industrious kid might have contributed to our society had he been allowed to live. Just as we must imagine now the contributions we--as a nation--have lost because so many other lives were cut short by racist atrocities. Acts of terror.
No doubt, the latest tragic police killing in Baton Rouge by an African American man will provide more ammunition for those who are intent on continuing the coded race-based politics of the moment. As the GOP launches its law-and-order presidential campaign, we should hit the "pause" button for a reflective moment. No measure can support a law-and-order promise as much as one that also is aimed at righting past wrongs--wrongs that belie the assertion that all life matters.
We should not engage in the politics of distortion--wrongly associating a deranged killer with a movement for equal justice under law, as well as for social justice. Just because he's black. We should not marginalize and demonize the people pushing for that just society and then blame them for these social divisions. They should be embraced with the full protection of the law and with the recognition--as Sen. Burr and other lawmakers have made, and as the cold cases bear witness--that some lives clearly have mattered far less throughout our history.
In this way, with this recognition and the substantive action to back it up, we can prove once and for all that all life really does matter because we will assure that black life matters, too.