Sunday, August 28, 2005

Cold Case Right Direction

50 years ago today a heinous murder shook the foundation of the civil rights movement. In a small town in Mississippi a 14 year old boy was shaken awake at 2 am as he slept in his Uncle's house. Emmett Till, a Chicago teenager, had allegedly whistled at a white women outside a small country store. The seemingly insignificant gesture was an act that in that south could and had lead to vigilante capital punishment.

In Money, Mississippi a half century ago that small act did lead to vigilante capital punishment. Young Mr. Till was beaten up, shot and cast in the nearby Tallahatchie River, where he sank to the bottom with the aid of a heavy fan from a cotton gin that was fashioned around his neck. His disfigured face was shown to the nation when Jet magazine published a paper once Mr. Till was recovered from the river.

Two men, Roy Bryant and his half brother J.W. Milam, where tried and acquitted of the murder after an all white jury deliberated for a whole entire hour. The next year both men, who have since died and are probably feeling the heat of eternal damnation, admitted to Life Magazine that they had indeed murder the young man. But, they couldn't be tried again because of double jeopardy rules.

However, there may have been other people involved and the federal government is re-investigating the case.

The Till murder is one of the many civil rights killings that have been re-opened or re-investigated in recent years; since 1989 authorities in 7 seven states have resurrected 29 cases, landed 27 arrests and have gained 21 convictions. Not a bad percentage in cases where some witnesses have died or become (remained) forgetful, where evidence has deteriorated, been destroyed or has disappeared and old bias' and bigotry have been rediscovered.

But those efforts need to be applauded and encouraged. Justice denied is justice waiting. No one can tell us that America is not a better place when:

Earlier this year Edgar Ray Killen was finally convicted of the vicious killing of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964; and

Bobby Frank Cherry was finally convicted (twice in 2001 and 2002) of the brutal bombing deaths of Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, four little girls, in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in the fall of 1963; and

In 1994 Byron De La Beckworth was finally convicted of the assassination of Mississippi's NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers in his driveway in June of 1963.

America can continue to exercise its considerable demons and persist in the pursuit of justice by reopening cold cases and passing a bill that would make that pursuing easier.

The "Cold Case" legislation, S-1369, is making its way through Congress and is sponsored by Senators Jim Talent (R-MO) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT). The bill would create a special unit, the Unsolved Crimes Section, in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to solely investigate civil rights era crimes. The legislation would deal with crimes committed before 1970 with a budget of $5 million. The bill would require the federal government to work with local and state officials to resurrect cases that were insufficiently investigated during the movement.

The prominent cases, like those mentioned above, have received the bulk of this new attention. But there are countless others that are awaiting justice. "In Alabama, the killing Jimmy Lee Jackson by a highway patrolman..."(1) is now being reconsidered as is the killing of four African American sharecroppers in Georgia in 1946 and the bombing deaths in 1951 in the state of Florida of NAACP head Harry Moore and spouse Herriette.

The souls of those waiting for justice can't rest in peace and America can't move forward and heal until justice has been dispensed and the perpetrators punished. America is currently trying to spread democracy, freedom and justice around the world, both legitimately and illegitimately, but that dispersion of democracy, freedom and justice will be easier to distribute if we finally and fully spread it in America, no matter how long it takes.

1. Kaminsky, Michelle, Re-opening cold cases from the Civil Rights Era,