SPLC President Richard Cohen Testifies in Support of 'Cold Case' Act

Testifying before two House Judiciary subcommittees today, Center President Richard Cohen urged legislators to put their full weight behind a bill that would enhance the ability of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI to investigate and prosecute civil rights-era slayings.

Titled the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act (HR 923), the bill would create an Unsolved Crimes Section within the Department of Justice and an Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Investigation Office within the FBI. The bill would also strengthen coordinated efforts between federal, state and local law enforcement officers and prosecutors to pursue unsolved civil rights-era cases.

In his testimony, Cohen acknowledged the difficulties that the passage of time has created in pursuing these cases, but said "we should not let those difficulties - the product of our country's neglect and failure – be an excuse for not doing what we can now. Some of the cases that are today considered 'cold' may turn out to have some burning embers, and we should leave no stone unturned in our efforts to resolve them."

SPLC President Richard Cohen and Rita Schwerner Bender, widow of slain civil rights worker Michael Schwerner, converse while waiting to testify in support of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. Photo credit: Barbara Salisbury

"At the time the Memorial was dedicated, the killers in most of the cases chronicled on it had not been prosecuted or convicted. Today, many cases still cry out for justice. For this reason, the Memorial serves as a reminder - not only of the sacrifices made during the civil rights era - but also of its injustices," Cohen said.

In the years since the Memorial's dedication, six people have been convicted for deaths chronicled on it.

"Over the years there have been sporadic efforts to prosecute some of the civil rights era slayings that were ignored at the time. But there has never been the kind of sustained, national effort that is called for," said Cohen. "If we are to address these injustices before it is too late - before they become permanent scars on our nation's history - it is essential that Congress pass legislation mandating a well-coordinated and well-funded effort to investigate and prosecute unsolved crimes from the civil rights era."

In addition to the martyrs identified on the Memorial, Cohen said research done while creating the Memorial uncovered the names of more than 70 other people who died violently during the civil rights era. Their names were not added because their deaths did not meet the criteria established for inclusion on the Memorial or because not enough was known about the circumstances of their deaths. In many cases, the killings were never fully investigated in the first place, and often law enforcement officials were involved in the killings or subsequent cover-ups.

In February, the Center provided the FBI its files on those cases after learning of the FBI's "cold case" initiative.

If the legislation — named for 14-year-old civil rights martyr Emmett Till — passes, it will require the DOJ and the FBI to report annually to Congress on the progress made in pursuing these cases. It will also authorize $11.5 million annually to fund the new units. The Emmett Till Act would also provide funding for a Community Relations Service within the DOJ to work with local communities to solve these crimes.

Also testifying on the panel that included Cohen were Myrlie Evers Williams, widow of slain NAACP leader Medgar Evers; Rita Schwerner Bender, widow of slain civil rights worker Michael Schwerner; and Douglas Jones, who successfully prosecuted two of the Klansmen responsible for killing Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963. Medgar Evers, Michael Schwerner and the four girls are among the 40 martyrs listed on the Civil Rights Memorial.