BIRMINGHAM, Ala. >> There has only been one prosecution under the Emmett Till Act, even though the law was passed with the promise of $135 million for police work and an army of federal agents to investigate unsolved killings from the civil rights era. Some deaths aren’t even under review because of a quirk in the law.
Still, proponents are laying the groundwork to extend and expand the act in hopes it’s not too late for some families to get justice.
In nearly six years since the signing of the law, named for a black Chicago teenager killed after flirting with a white woman in Mississippi in 1955, only one person has been prosecuted: A former Alabama trooper who pleaded guilty in 2010 to killing a black protester in 1965.
The government has closed the books on all but 20 of the 126 deaths it investigated under the law, finding many were too old to prosecute because suspects and witnesses had died and memories had faded. And Congress hasn’t appropriated millions of dollars in grant money that was meant to help states fund their own investigations.
Perhaps most frustrating, an unknown number of slayings haven’t even gotten a look because the law doesn’t cover any killings after 1969. That saddens people like Gloria Green-McCray, whose brother James Earl Green was shot to death on May 14, 1970 by police during a student demonstration at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.
The family never learned the name of the shooter, and no one was ever prosecuted.
“We’ve never really got any closure because of the investigation not being thorough and everything just being kicked out,” said Green-McCray. “It was like, ‘Just another black person dead. I mean, so what?'”
In a January report to Congress, the Justice Department said prosecutors are still continuing their work.
Hoping to spur more action, the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have passed resolutions asking the federal government for more thorough reviews and to spend the money that was authorized in 2007.
SCLC President Charles Steele Jr. called the Till Act a major disappointment and said it may be time for marches.
“We can never let people think they can get away with these types of horrific crimes,” he said.
The law expires in 2017 unless Congress extends it. The NAACP’s vice president for advocacy, Hilary Shelton, said supporters have had “informal discussions” about expanding the law, partly to allow for the review of deaths that happened after 1969.
Passed with bipartisan support and signed by then-President George W. Bush in October 2008, the Till Act gave new hope to families that lost loved ones during the civil rights era, when Southern authorities and juries often looked the other way when a black person was killed.
Law professor Janis McDonald, who helps lead a program at Syracuse University to identify and investigate suspicious deaths from that era, said the Justice Department never formed regional task forces to probe killings, and it didn’t do much more than review documents in many cases. While some hoped the program would get a jumpstart when Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president, little progress has been made, McDonald said.
“For whatever reason the leadership does not seem to have made it a priority,” said McDonald, co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse.
The Till Act did land one courtroom victory.
Former Alabama trooper James Bonard Fowler pleaded guilty four years ago to shooting Jimmie Lee Jackson during protests in Marion in 1965. The local prosecutor, District Attorney Michael Jackson, said the FBI assisted with the case by letting him search for photographs in Washington.
The lingering cases include the shooting deaths of three civil rights workers killed 50 years ago in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in what is known as the “Mississippi Burning” case after the movie by the same name. While seven people were convicted on federal civil rights charges in the deaths in 1967 and one person was convicted on a state manslaughter charge, the case remains open.
The Justice Department had a civil rights “cold case” initiative that helped with four successful prosecutions before the law was signed. It closed its investigation into the killing of the law’s namesake, 14-year-old Till, in 2007. The suspected killers had been dead for years and a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict others who might have had a hand in the death.
“Although our investigations have reached an end in the large majority of the matters reviewed, our work on the remaining matters continues in earnest,” the Justice Department said in its progress report to Congress in January.
The Till Act set aside $10 million annually for investigations; $2 million for grants to states; and $1.5 million for getting communities involved.
The Justice Department didn’t respond to questions about how much has actually been spent, but none of the $20 million in grant money was ever requested by states or appropriated by Congress.
“Over time a pittance of that has been authorized. I can’t say the degree to which that has stood in the way,” said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery.
McDonald, the Syracuse professor, said her students have found about 200 more cases that deserve investigation, and an Associated Press review found more than two dozen suspicious deaths after 1969 that could be reviewed.
McDonald said the 1969 cutoff date was a “somewhat arbitrary” decision linked partly to the idea that 1970 marked an upswing in protests over the Vietnam War. The decision on timing meant federal agents couldn’t use the Till Act to take another look into the May 1970 death of Earl Green, Green-McCray’s brother.
Green, 17, and Jackson State student Phillip Gibbs were shot to death by law officers at Jackson State during a protest that had roots in years of racial unrest in Jackson; frustration over civil rights progress; the Vietnam War; and the killing of four students in Ohio at Kent State just 10 days earlier. Dozens of bullet holes still pock the side of a dormitory where officers opened fire after someone threw a bottle toward police.
Green-McCray and her sister, Mattie Hull, would like federal officials to investigate, even if no one ever is prosecuted.
“It would show there are still caring people in the world, that somebody still cares and means to do the right thing,” Hull said.