The mood was somber when FBI officials recently dug up the body of Emmett Till. The mood should have been downright grim. If ever there was a racial lynching case that screamed for federal action it was the Till case. While on a visit to Mississippi in 1955, the fourteen year-old Till was kidnapped from his home at gunpoint, savagely beaten, shot and dumped in a river.
The instant the story broke nationally, black leaders demanded that the Justice Department and the FBI take action. This was the right demand to make given the absolute refusal of white Southern sheriffs to arrest whites suspected of racial murders. In the rare cases they were arrested, all-white juries refused to convict them.
The Till case was not an exception. In a farce of a trial, the two white men that killed Till were quickly acquitted. But that was not the end of it. The murder continued to send political shock waves across the nation. Black leaders, labor organizations, and numerous public officials implored the Justice department to take action. Even then there was strong suspicion that others were either directly involved in the murder, or had knowledge of the killing.
Yet Justice Department officials still refused to do anything. They claimed that state officials were solely responsible for prosecuting racially motivated crimes, and if they refused or conducted a farce of a prosecution as was the case with the Till murder, there was little they could do about it. This, however, was blatant legal evasion.
Federal statutes gave the Justice Department the power to prosecute individuals on civil rights charges when state prosecutors either failed to bring charges, or conducted a weak, ineffectual prosecution that resulted in acquittals. Federal law also gave the Justice Department the power to prosecute public officials and law enforcement officers who committed or conspired with others to commit acts of racial violence. Congress enacted the latter statutes immediately after the Civil War and they were aimed at specifically punishing racial attacks against blacks. In many of the racial killings local sheriffs and police officers directly participated in the attacks, or aided and abetted the killers.
Till was abducted at gunpoint. That made it a kidnapping case. This automatically gave federal authorities jurisdiction over the case. They could have easily brought civil rights charges against the two principal defendants and any others who were suspected of complicity in his murder.
Till, though, was not solely a victim of a racist, and hostile white jury. He was also the victim of a racially indifferent federal government. In the pre-civil rights era, presidents and their attorneys general generally ignored or sparingly used the federal statutes to prosecute criminal civil rights cases abuses. This had less to do with the personalities, individual preferences, or even racial bigotry of the men in the White House and the Justice Department than with political expediency. They were determined not to offend the politically powerful South. While the Till case sparked anger and garnered lots of press attention, in that era of Jim Crow segregation, it was still not enough to move federal officials to act.
A half-century later federal officials were still reluctant to get involved. It took a resolution by Illinois congressman, Bobby Rush, and demands by civil rights leaders to get the Justice Department to agree to poke and probe into the murder to see if any new charges could be brought.
Now that federal officials have taken action in the Till case, they should not stop there. There are still more racial murders that scream for redress. Mack Charles Parker, Herbert Lee, and Jimmy Lee Jackson, to name three of the more blatant cases, were victims of racially motivated violence. No state or federal charges were ever brought against their murderers. Some of their suspected killers may still be alive.
Also, according to FBI reports, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a para-military terror squad in Mississippi, committed several murders between 1960 and 1965. In nearly all cases, FBI agents quickly learned the identities of the suspected killers through Klan informants, or the men’s own boasts of the killings. There was only a token effort made to bring them to justice.
Reopening the investigation into the Till case and other old racial murders tosses another ugly glare on the period in the South when blacks were murdered with the tacit approval of Southern state officials, and the blind-eye of federal officials. That’s a good thing. In a final ironic note that tells much about the changing times, one of the FBI officials that helped supervise Till’s exhumation was black, and born in the South the same year that Till was killed. At the gravesite, he noted that the justice system turns slowly but it still turns. State and federal prosecutors can prove him right by bringing Till’s killers to justice.