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Emmett Till bill could pave way for reopening more civil rights cold cases

By Jerry Mitchell, The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger

Congress on Tuesday passed legislation that would give the FBI the opportunity to pursue more civil rights cold cases.

If President Obama signs the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes bill as expected, the FBI could expand its investigations from cold cases before 1970 to include those that occurred before 1980.

Since 1989, authorities across the U.S. have reopened and prosecuted civil rights cold cases, leading to 24 convictions, beginning with the 1994 conviction of Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Beckwith received a life sentence in prison, where he died.

The FBI and Justice Department aided in a number of those cases, taking the lead in the successful prosecutions in the early 2000s of Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry for their roles in the Ku Klux Klan’s 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls. In 2003, the Justice Department successfully prosecuted Ernest Avants for the 1966 killing of Ben Chester White and four years later won the conviction of James Ford Seale for the 1964 kidnapping and killing of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore.

In 2005, a Mississippi jury convicted Edgar Ray Killen for orchestrating the killings of three civil rights workers, and activist Alvin Sykes pushed for federal legislation, calling for a coordinated effort to pursue these cold cases.

He named the legislation after Till, who was beaten and killed in Mississippi in 1955. An all-white jury acquitted two men who later confessed to Look magazine they had indeed killed him.

Sykes chose the name because he had promised Till’s mother he would pursue the case.

As a result of work by Sykes and documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, the Justice Department in 2004 reopened the Till killing, closing it three years later after a majority-black Mississippi grand jury didn’t indict Carolyn Bryant for reportedly identifying Till to her husband, Roy, one of the killers who was acquitted and later confessed.

In 2006, the FBI began to investigate more than 100 civil rights cold cases, getting the names from a list of victims developed by the Southern Poverty Center.

In 2008, the Till bill finally became law.

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Thomas Moore, brother of Charles Eddie Moore, left, stands with Alvin Sykes, CBC documentary filmmaker David Ridgen, center, Donna Collins and Thelma Collins, sister of Hezekiah Dee, outside the former Eastland Federal Courthouse on June 14, 2007, after a jury found reputed Klansman James Ford Seale guilty of kidnapping and conspiracy in the deaths of Dee and Charles Eddie Moore. (Photo: Clarion-Ledger file photo)

“When this bill was signed into law, family members, academics, historians, lawyers, advocates began working to develop a full accounting for these long-standing, gross human and civil rights atrocities,” U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, said Tuesday. “The reauthorization passed by Congress is a response to their appeals to make the law a better tool in their quest for justice.”

Under the new bill, nicknamed “Till Bill 2,” the Justice Department is being encouraged to reach out to “activists, advocates and academics working on these issues.”

That will presumably include the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University, Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, the LSU Cold Case Project/LSU Manship School of Mass Communication and The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University, which have all researched and written about these cold cases.

After the original Till bill became law, the FBI began to report on those cases to Congress. To date, all but seven of those cases have been closed.

One is the 1964 disappearance of Joe Edwards, whose car was discovered along the highway between Ferriday and Vidalia in Louisiana. Authorities found a spot of blood in his car.

The FBI suspected law enforcement and the KKK killed Edwards, who worked at the Shamrock Motel, where Klansmen often gathered. Edwards had supposedly forced a kiss on a white woman who worked at the motel.

Stanley Nelson, editor of The Concordia Sentinel, who has investigated the apparent killing for nearly a decade, is continuing to investigate.

Although the FBI has closed the case, he is pursuing clues where Edwards’ body might be, he said. “It’s the only (civil rights cold) case I know of where the body was never found.”

Nelson’s new book on civil rights cold cases, Devils Walking: Klan Murders Along the Mississippi in the 1960s, details Edwards’ killing and many others by the KKK.

Killings that weren’t included originally but could be included under the new bill would be the 1970 killings of two students on the Jackson State University campus — Phillip Gibbs, a 21-year-old junior, and James Earl Green, a 17-year-old student at Jim Hill High School.

When a Vietnam War demonstration on campus grew angry, Jackson police, the state police and others responded, eventually firing into a women’s dormitory after midnight.

The two were killed by buckshot blasts, and at least a dozen were wounded. No one was ever arrested or prosecuted.

“As we work to address current questions about racial violence and civil rights, we should be mindful of our history and why so many in the African-American community raise the issue of whether black lives matter,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Michigan. “Passage of the original Emmett Till Act represented a commitment to resolving the unanswered questions from one of the darkest periods in modern American history.”

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