One the reasons so many of the historical acts of violence against Black people in the United States go unanswered is due to statutes of limitations and other legal barriers to achieving equal justice for these crimes. President Obama is addressing this problem just as he prepares to leave office in 2017.

On December 16th, President Obama signed the “Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes” bill, which extends a 2007 law and reopens race-based crimes that had been poorly investigated or had been closed, unsolved. President Obama has extended the law indefinitely, as it was intended to expire in 2017.

According to PBS and NewsOne, this bill is named for the fourteen year old black boy Emmett Till who was killed in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. Till was brutally murdered by two white men, who were ultimately acquitted by an all white jury. Later, the two men admitted their crimes but could not be retried in a court of law.

The new law removes the statute of limitations on cases that occurred before 1970, and extends the time span of cases to be considered to 1979. Alvin Sykes, an activist, initially proposed the federal law reopening civil rights cold cases in 2005, as he worked to bring Till’s killers to justice. The Till case was opened in 2004 and closed in 2007, after a majority black jury in Mississippi did not indict Carolyn Bryant, who allegedly pointed out Till to her husband, Roy Bryant, who confessed to killing Till. 

Although Till’s murderers were never brought to justice, 100 cases have been reopened by the FBI and the Department of Justice since 1989. Around 24 cases have resulted in convictions, including the murderer of Medgar Evers, Byron de la Beckwith in 1994.

Organizations such as the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Urban League have also partnered with the FBI and the DOJ to investigate racially motivated crimes. In addition, the new legislation signed by Obama allows university groups, such as Emory University’s Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, LSU’s Cold Case Project, and Syracuse’s Cold Case Justice Initiative, to assist in solving these crimes.

We all have an interest in seeking justice and closure in these cases, as well as bringing attention to the racially motivated murders that plague our history. Hopefully, the new Emmett Till bill will bring justice to more families who lost loved ones to racial hatred and domestic terrorism.

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