This week President Obama signed into law the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016, which expands the ability of federal investigators to re-open the cases of decades-old hate crimes. The law could open up a new line of research opportunities for students at Florida State University.
Emmett Till was fourteen years old when he was kidnapped and killed after allegedly flirting with a white woman. Till’s murderers escaped conviction in the Jim Crow South; an all white jury acquitted J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, though they later confessed to the killing. Because the men had already been tried, the confessions didn’t lead to more charges. Florida State University Professor Davis Houck is a main architect behind the Emmett Till Archive housed at the school. He says Till’s case stands as a stark reminder of how the court system denied justice to African Americans.
“So Emmett's name on the bills is most fitting; sixty-one years later and nobody has ever served time for his kidnap and murder,” Houck said. “His case remains a representative anecdote for our country's shameful past when it comes to pursuing justice in such racial killings.”
The law reauthorizes legislation first enacted in 2007, and it expands the number of cases the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice can reopen, and encourages the agencies to collaborate with civil rights groups, universities, and the families of victims. The reauthorization of the law could deliver justice to families, but Houck says it will also foster a partnership between students, historians and federal investigators, empowering the next generation to re-examine the country’s past.
"To be able to tell your students that the work they're doing could help bring justice to one of these families, well, it doesn't get any bigger or better than that as a teacher; suddenly the four walls you inhabit as a learning community have been transformed into something bordering on the sacred," Houck said.
Under the original law, federal investigators have resurrected more than a hundred of cases, though the work has resulted in just one conviction. But Davis Houck says the process of re-examining Civil Rights Era hate crimes is an end in itself.
“The continued commitment to pursuing justice by the Justice Department and FBI sends an important message: we remember; we have not forgotten; we will pursue all the evidence; and we will prosecute when we can,” Houck said.
The Emmett Till Archive contains local, state and national newspaper records from the time, as well as the papers of historians and documentarians who studied the case. The archive is expected to be fully operational in 2017.