WASHINGTON, D.C — Unsolved lynchings from the Civil Rights era are getting another push to justice, with Congress passing the Civil Rights Cold Case Investigations Support Act of 2022.
Signed by President Joe Biden Dec. 5, the Act extends the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018 which requires the National Archives and Records Administration to create the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection and requires federal agencies (with some exceptions) to turn over copies of any remaining records from Civil Rights era cold cases.
The Act also creates the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board, which reviews the decisions of federal agencies to postpone the disclosure of civil rights cold case records. While former President Donald Trump formally authorized the Review Board in 2019, the Board’s members were not confirmed and finalized until earlier this year. The board, under the new Act, would expire by 2027.
“I rise this afternoon in pursuit of justice for the Black men and Black women abducted, beaten, and killed during the segregation era in the American South, and in retaliation for their participation in the Civil Rights Movement,” the Act’s sponsor, Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff said before the Senate vote in September. “We will demonstrate that the United States will never rest in the pursuit of truth and justice for those who were lynched, abducted, beaten, killed and assaulted in the segregation era South and during the Civil Rights Movement.”
The board is charged with reviewing the records of Civil Rights era cold criminal cases of murders and other racially motivated violence that occurred between 1940 and 1979.
According to the National Archives, the Justice Department identified and investigated 132 cases involving 151 victims of racially motivated violence following the 2008 passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which required the Department to investigate and prosecute, if possible, cold cases from the Civil Rights Era.
Only two (both in Mississippi) have been brought to federal prosecution and several are still open. More than 100 of the cases were closed and remain cold cases. The Justice Department in a September 2022 report noted its most recent successful, federally assisted state prosecution. James Bonard Fowler, a former Alabama State Trooper, fatally shot Jimmie Lee Jackson in 1965 during a protest in Marion, Alabama In 2010, Fowler was convicted of misdemeanor manslaughter and sentenced to six months in prison for the lynching.
Jackson’s murder served as a catalyst for the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, the report states.
“Our nation has a long, troubling history of failing to deliver justice for victims of racially motivated violence. One could draw a direct line from the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 to the killing of Trayvon Martin just 10 years ago. In neither case were the killers convicted,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman said. “By passing this bipartisan bill, we’ve begun the process of healing the wounds of our past and demonstrating that racist violence has no place in America.”
The killing of Black people was prominent in the South post-slavery. Mississippi and Georgia have the highest number of reported lynchings overall, according to Equal Justice Initiative. Alabama ranked fifth.
This year, Georgia Rep. Carl Gilliard introduced a proposal to create a task force to investigate and redress unsolved lynchings in Georgia.
More than 500 cold cases would fall under the purview of the proposal, Gilliard said. His brother’s 1957 lynching is one of them.
“Long before I was born, they lynched and mutilated him and cut him into pieces,” he said during a March 2022 CNHI interview. “Georgia has a past and we’ve got to do something to give these people what they deserve. We may not get every last case out of the 500 some odd cases that we know of, but if we get one more than we’ve had, we’re moving in the right direction.”
The Georgia proposal also seeks to pardon and exonerate unresolved lynching cases for the victims who were wrongly or unjustly accused or convicted of a crime, or lynched where there was not sufficient evidence to prosecute or convict them.