News & Politics

Why It Took a Half Century to Reopen the Till Case

If ever there was a racial lynching case that screamed for federal action it was the Emmitt Till murder case. What took so long?
There was much elation at the news that the Justice Department would reopen the Emmitt Till murder case. But there would have been much more cause for cheer if the federal government had done its job and prosecuted the case years ago. 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, and in the rare cases they were arrested, the refusal of white juries to convict them. The Till case was hardly an exception. The two white men tried in the murders 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.

Justice Department officials 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.

Federal officials also could have prosecuted some of the killers of innocent blacks under the Lindberg Act, passed in 1934, which made kidnapping a federal offense. Till, for instance, was kidnapped. 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.

But Till 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 used sparingly 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.

They rationalized their see-no-evil, hear-no-evil stance toward Southern racial violence by slavishly adhering to a misguided and narrow interpretation of federal law. The only exceptions to this rule occurred when a violent act triggered a major riot, generated mass protest or attracted major press attention. The Till case certainly sparked anger and garnered lots of press attention but in that era it was still not enough to move federal officials to act.

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 whom might 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 the federal government. When state and federal prosecutors prosecute the suspected killers in all these cases, only then can the book be permanently closed on the South's hideous legacy of racial murders.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).