On the day of her death, Mamie Till Mobley was scheduled for a call with Mississippi assistant attorney general Jonathan Compretta, civil rights activist Alvin Sykes, and Keith Beauchamp, a filmmaker working on a documentary about the August 1955 lynching of her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till. The two white men who kidnapped and murdered Till were acquitted within weeks of the killing, and Mobley spent the rest of her life fighting to have the case reopened. On that day, almost 48 years later, it seemed that events might finally bend towards some form of belated justice.
Mobley, who died on January 6, 2003, didn’t live to see it, but in 2004 the Department of Justice reopened Till’s case to determine whether anyone else had been involved beyond the original defendants, who admitted to the killing after they were acquitted. In 2005, investigators exhumed Till’s body, photos of which had shocked the country in 1955. Two years later, a grand jury declined to bring charges against five surviving individuals, including Carolyn Bryant, the wife of one of the killers, whose encounter with Till sparked the events leading to his murder. In 2007, the case was closed once again.
Till’s murder deeply inspired the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. But it was only one of dozens of other racially motivated murders that took place primarily in the South that were never solved. The fight Till’s mother started eventually led to the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act — a bipartisan effort to reopen investigations into racially motivated murders that occurred before 1970. That legislation, which will expire in 2017, led to dozens of cases being reopened, to little success.
Now civil rights advocates are pushing for the act to be reauthorized, strengthened, and expanded to include all racially motivated murders. In late April, a bipartisan group of legislators introduced a new bill in both the House and Senate aiming to do just that.
“We should not abandon the pursuit of justice,” wrote civil rights activist and Georgia congressman John Lewis, who sponsored both the original bill and the current one, in an email to The Intercept. “We learned from our experiences with the last bill how we could strengthen the new bill,” he added, noting that legislation alone is not “a silver bullet” and that society as a whole must contribute to the healing process. He also emphasized the connection between past racist violence and current one.
“It is not possible to separate the crimes of today from the legacy of injustice where they were born,” he wrote. “Actually, understanding the crimes of the past may help this society comprehend the depth of injustice communities of color are bearing today. It is all connected.”
Till Bill One
“Mamie died with the knowledge that the case was going forward, finally,” Sykes told The Intercept. Sykes is a Kansas City native and rape survivor who taught himself the ins and outs of the justice system and successfully campaigned to reopen the case of musician Steve Harvey, who was beaten to death in 1980. When he read in a local paper that Mobley was still trying to have Till’s case reopened decades after his death, he promised he would help her do that. In the process, he became the architect of the Till bill.
“There had to be some last ditch effort, there just had to be, whatever the chances were, to try and find out any cases where there’s a person alive who may be a perpetrator,” he said. “The goal was not only convictions. It was to be a vehicle to find the truth, as much as possible; and if possible, to secure justice. But first to find the truth. It was a monumental task.”
Till’s case became the most infamous symbol of the civil rights era’s racist violence. But his killing was hardly exceptional; hundreds were killed. Civil rights-era lynchings carried on a much older legacy of racist hatred, and states’ law enforcement institutions, when not directly responsible for the violence, persisted in denying justice, botching investigations, and acquitting one murderer after another.
Reckoning with that history and its reverberations in the present was the goal of reopening cases like Till’s. The Till bill aimed to coordinate scattered, multi-agency efforts, and authorized the DOJ and FBI to investigate and prosecute unsolved murders that happened before December 31, 1969. But whether the goal was to solve cold cases, or to come to terms with the history of violence they represented, the legislation largely fell short of its ambitions.
“The fact that it was passed was a sign that the nation was willing to think more and do more about civil rights violence,” said Renee Romano, a history professor at Oberlin College who wrote a book about civil rights murders. “The folks that pushed most for the act really hoped that it would be a way to get at a bigger, broader truth, to bring out the history of racial violence and its depth, and the way that it shaped the country. But the challenge of phrasing it in terms of prosecution automatically limited it. It became, here are 100 cases and this one can be prosecuted, and that one can’t, and we’re done.”
“People who were pushing for the act did not want a narrative of closure, they wanted a narrative of opening up the truth,” she added. “We’re now patting ourselves in the back for the fact that 50 years late we’ve done a report that says the guy who did it is dead.”
The Till bill, which came with a combined $12 million a year in funding for federal and state enforcement authorities, was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008 and led to the reopening of 113 cold cases, involving 126 victims. By 2015, when the most recent DOJ progress report was published, 105 of the 113 reopened cases had been closed. A handful of cases that had already been reopened before the bill passed led to prosecutions.
Only one was prosecuted following passage of the act, that of James Bernard Fowler, an Alabama state trooper who shot and killed Jimmy Lee Jackson in 1965, setting off the Selma to Montgomery marches that eventually led to the Voting Rights Act. In 2010, Fowler pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges and served five months of a six-months prison sentence. A year later, the FBI started looking into the case of another black man Fowler shot and killed in 1966, Nathan Johnson. That case is now closed, and Fowler died last year.
Their Lives Mattered
Cold cases are inherently challenging. Witnesses and suspects die or can’t be found, evidence is lost, memories become confused. But racial violence cases also indict our broader society in a way the law has little means to address. “Even if we know who did it, we also know the reasons it happened, and the complicity and the responsibility goes way beyond the individual,” Romero said. “Legal trials are really bad at that larger question.”
DOJ officials did not respond to a request for comment, but in a series of progress reports noted that most cases were closed because “all identified subjects are deceased.” In other cases, evidence was not enough to meet the high standards for a murder to be considered racially motivated. Federal prosecutors have had some successes with older cases, such as that of Ben Chester White, a black sharecropper shot dead in Mississippi in 1966 by Klansmen hoping to lure Martin Luther King to the town in a plot to assassinate him. Three men were originally charged with White’s murder. The trial of James Lloyd Jones, who confessed and then recanted, ended in a mistrial; Claude Fuller was never tried because of a medical condition; and Ernest Avants was acquitted. In 2000, the government opened a federal prosecution of Avants on the ground that the forest where the murder took place was federal land. He was convicted in 2003 and died in prison a year later.
The DOJ reports list the Avants case and a few other victories, though almost all predate the Emmett Till Act. Klansman James Ford Seale was convicted in 2007 for the 1964 murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee during Freedom Summer, a voter registration campaign in Mississippi. Seale died in prison in 2011. In 2001, Tommy Blanton and Bobby Cherry were sentenced to four life terms over a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young girls. Cherry died in prison in 2004; Blanton, who is 85, is in prison, awaiting a parole hearing.
In its latest report, the DOJ notes that “it is unlikely that any of [the] remaining cases will be prosecuted” but adds that the department has attempted to track victims’ families and update them on the cases, hand delivering letters to relatives who can be located.
Independent groups such as the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University have been carrying out their own investigations, sometimes feeding tips to the DOJ and recommending additional cases. The bill introduced last week would allow for more cases to be added, and would require the DOJ and FBI to consult with civil rights groups and others working on cold cases.
Paula Johnson, a law professor and co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative, said the DOJ didn’t go far enough and that many cases were closed prematurely and without the thorough investigations and “all-out effort” called for by the Till bill. “We don’t think that as much as could have been done was done,” she said. “Before the statute expires in 2017, we want there to be another effort by Congress to recognize that more can be done and to say that this is important and these people’s lives mattered.”
Stanley Nelson, a reporter at the Concordia Sentinel, a small weekly in Ferriday, Louisiana, has written more than 200 stories as part of a series on cold civil rights cases in the area, and has investigated at length the killing of Frank Morris, a black Ferriday shopkeeper who died in 1964 when his shoe shop was torched by two white men who forced him back inside at gunpoint when he tried to escape. Morris died in hospital four days later, after having given his account to the FBI.
As he started investigating cold cases with the support of the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2007, Nelson also started collecting a stack of obituaries as one after another witness or potential suspect died. “I started out with one obituary in a file and now that file is more than an inch thick,” he said. For a while he fed the FBI and DOJ his own leads, until he realized it was “a one-way street” and stopped, though he kept publishing his discoveries.
In 2011, the ex-wife, former brother-in-law, and son of a man named Arthur Leonard Spencer alerted Nelson that Spencer had once spoken of going to Ferriday to burn a shoe shop. The FBI received the same tip a year and a half earlier, Nelson said, but it’s not until his story ran in the local paper that a grand jury was convened. Jurors were still reviewing evidence when Spencer died. The DOJ closed the case in 2013.
Nelson said the FBI didn’t respond to his questions while the case was ongoing, and since it closed he hasn’t been able to get answers either. He would like to know how many people they talked to, why they didn’t move faster, and how they expected to solve decades-old cases when agents were assigned to them on top of their regular workload and were regularly reassigned.
“You come into a case that’s 50 years old and it’s not like a typical case, you have to have some background knowledge of the area, the town, the place, who the lead characters were. You just have to have some historic knowledge as well as current knowledge,” he said. “There was a lack of continuity and that was a real problem.”
Another problem, he added, was the agents’ reliance on old FBI reports from the 1960s — which he had to file FOIA requests for, often receiving only redacted versions. “What the FBI typically does with these cases is, they go back and read them and then they take those leads, those suspects and those witnesses and they see who’s still alive,” Nelson said. “If all the witnesses are dead and all the suspects are dead they’re more than likely to go ahead and quickly close that case.”
But Spencer, for instance, was never listed as a suspect in the 1960s. “If you begin with the assumption that every known suspect and every known witness was identified in the 1960s and they’re all dead, then the thought that we have nowhere else to go with this is false, because it doesn’t mean that back in the 1960s they had every known suspect and every known witness. Often times they did not.”
The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.
Nelson acknowledges that “there’s nothing easy” about cold cases. But he also said that time can be an advantage. “The beauty of doing it 50 years later is that by and large the dangers that existed then do not exist now and also, people have had time to go back and think about it.”
The Past Is Not Past
Sykes, who led the effort to reopen Till’s case after Mobley died, hopes “Till Bill 2,” as he calls the reauthorization act introduced last week, will do more and ultimately include cases of police misconduct. He also hopes investigations of the murder of Trayvon Martin and other black men killed in recent years will be reopened, although the language of the new bill excludes cases that have already been investigated by the DOJ’s civil rights division, as Martin’s was. Sykes noted that meeting the legal standards that qualify a murder as “racially motivated” is harder than ever as racism has become both less obvious and more insidious. “Now they don’t go around in sheets,” he said, “they don’t brag like they used to.”
Sykes and others behind the original Till bill hoped the U.S. would eventually come to its own moment of truth and reconciliation about racial violence. But as racial violence persists, the focus, at the moment, remains on ending it. “Mamie would not be happy with what’s happening today,” Deborah Watts, a cousin of Emmett Till who now runs a foundation in his memory, told The Intercept. “It’s a continuum. The past is not past, unfortunately.”
Watts was a toddler when Till was killed. She recalls learning about what happened as a child, when she found a pamphlet with photos of her cousin by the civil rights photojournalist Ernest Withers. “When I connected those dots I took two of those booklets and just ripped them apart,” she said. The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation hopes to build on the “painful part of our history” and promote educational opportunities, but that history is not over, she added.
“This is a part of our DNA and the fabric of America that has not been erased or diminished,” she said, adding that she feels close to the families of dozens of black men and women killed mostly by police in recent years, and is encouraged by the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. “You go back to 1955 with Emmett and it’s the same thing: lack of accountability, lack of justice, families searching for answers. We should really be ashamed that we’re sitting here in 2016 searching for the same things.”