Missing the target: No need to exhume Emmett Till

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Frank Lipscomb

Should the Justice Department reopen the Emmett Till murder case? Yes, but exhuming his body for a forensic exam is not necessary and is a waste of time. The Justice Department has enough evidence already above ground. Mrs. Mamie Till Mobley positively identified her son's body back in 1955 after his murder.

Why now? There would have been more respectful cause for cheer if the federal government had done its job and prosecuted the case years ago while Till's mother, who died in 2003, was still alive. If ever there was a racial lynching case that screamed for federal action, it was the Till case. For the students who read my column, here is a brief history of what happened to Emmett Till. (I will give more details in September.)

While on a visit to Money, Miss., in 1955, the 14-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 around the country 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 (though in rare cases they were arrested) and the refusal of White juries to convict them.

The Till case was hardly an exception. The two White men tried for the murders were quickly acquitted. In fact, one juror had to finish drinking a "soda pop," which took a few minutes or the verdict would have been reached in just seconds. But that was not the end of it.

The murder continued to send political shockwaves across the nation. Black leaders, labor organizations, and numerous public officials implored the U.S. Department of Justice to take action. Justice Department officials, though, claimed that state officials were solely responsible for prosecuting racially motivated crimes, and if they refused to prosecute or conducted a farce of a prosecution, as was the case with the Till murder prosecution, there was little they could have do about it. This, however, was just plain legal fiction. Here are the facts that prove it 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; for example, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. 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. Emmett Till was kidnapped, which 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. That meant most of the Whites in the town of Money who supported the lowdown creeps who killed Till.

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 typically ignored or sparingly used the federal statutes to prosecute criminal civil rights abuses. This had less to do with the personalities, individual preferences, or even racial bigotry of those in the White House and the Justice Department, and more to do with political expediency?"they were determined not to offend the politically powerful South.

Politicians and government officials 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. Emmett Till's case certainly sparked anger and garnered lots of press attention, but in the era before Malcolm and Dr. King, it was still not enough to move federal officials to act.

If current federal officials are serious and not merely engaging in a political ploy for Bush's benefit, they should not stop with the Till case. There are many racial murders that scream for redress, such as those of Mack Charles Parker, Lamar Smith, Rev. George Lee and Jimmy Jackson, to name four of the more blatant cases of racially motivated violence. No state or federal charges were ever brought against their murderers, some of whom might still be alive.

Only when state and federal prosecutors have prosecuted the suspected killers and accomplices in all these cases can the book be permanently closed on the South's hideous legacy of racial murders committed during the apartheid atmosphere of that time in our country's history. If current federal officials won't do this, then it's just another Republican ploy to trick Black voters into their party as the 2006 elections approach.

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