Emmett Till Act

Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act

Emmett Till was brutally murdered in 1955 at the age of 14 while visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta region.  The murder was allegedly sparked by Till’s conversing with Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who kept a store in the area Till was visiting.  Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam were indicted for the murder and tried in September 1955, in Sumner, Mississippi.  After a 67-minute deliberation, both were acquitted of capital murder.  However, both Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam admitted to the murders in a 1956 interview with Look magazine.  After being acquitted, however, no charges could constitutionally be brought against them again. On May 10, 2004, the Department of Justice announced that it was reopening the Till case for further investigation.

Following the reopening of the Till case, there was political movement to support re-examining many of the unsolved murders of the Civil Rights Era. The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 was introduced in Congress in 2007.  Representatives Kenny Hulshof (R-MO) (retired) and John Lewis (D-GA) introduced the act in the House; and Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the act in the Senate.  The act had over 50 bipartisan co-sponsors in Congress.  The House of Representatives passed it on June 20, 2007, by a vote of 422 to 2; only Reps. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) voted against it.  In the Senate, the act was passed unanimously on September 24, 2008 and signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2008.

The act directs the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to coordinate the investigation and prosecution of Civil Rights Era homicides that occurred on or before December 31, 1969.  The act also directs the DOJ and FBI to coordinate their activities with state and local law enforcement and to make annual reports to Congress on the progress of investigations and prosecutions falling under the auspices of the act.  If the act is not re-approved by Congress at the end of fiscal year 2017, it will not be effective anymore.

Attorney General Eric Holder with CRRJ Director Margaret Burnham and Paula Johnson, Co-Director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative, based at Syracuse University College of Law.

For fiscal years 2008 through 2017, the act authorized appropriations of $10,000,000 per year to the Attorney General to be allocated by the Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI; $2,000,000 per year for grants to state or local law enforcement agencies for costs associated with their investigation and prosecution of civil rights era homicides; and $1,500,000 per year to DOJ’s Community Relations Service to bring together law enforcement agencies and communities to further the investigation of these homicides.  However, for the first two years the Till Act has been in effect, no funds were appropriated to DOJ under the act’s authorizing provisions.  However, in fiscal year 2010, Congress approved the President’s modest request for $1.6 million in funds.