04/01/2007

We Must Turn Every Stone to Seek Justice for Martyrs

Emmett Till was just a boy of 14 when he traveled to Mississippi from his home in Chicago in 1955. Not understanding the mores of the segregated South, he made the terrible mistake of whistling at a white woman.

Southern "justice" was swift. That weekend, Till was taken away by white men. His body was found three days later, weighted and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. A bullet was lodged in his skull. One eye was gouged out, and one side of his head was crushed.

His mother, Mamie Till, waited for justice that never came. Two white men were acquitted at the time, and just last month a grand jury declined to indict anyone else, closing the books on the case.

But her son’s murder galvanized the Civil Rights Movement. Ms. Till insisted that the casket be open at the funeral, so the world could see Emmett’s mutilated body and so that America would be forced to confront the horror and brutality of the racial violence that plagued the South. She hoped her son’s death would help put an end to the unspeakable injustices that many other mothers endured.

I knew Ms. Till. Before she died, she spoke at the 1989 dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial built by the Center at our headquarters in Montgomery, Ala. Today, water flows continuously over the round granite table that contains the inscription of her son’s name, along with 39 other martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.

The fact that no one may ever be punished for her son’s death would not have surprised her. It would have only strengthened her commitment to justice for the other victims.

And it should strengthen our resolve to demand justice for them, as well. Now the FBI is renewing its efforts to look into the unresolved cases from that era. To aid that initiative, we have forwarded to the FBI information about 75 people who died between 1952 and 1968 under circumstances suggesting they may have been victims of racially motivated violence.

Some of the crimes will never be solved. But we should ensure that every lead is followed.

The problem all along has been the assumption that these murder cases are “cold.” For years, that assumption was allowed to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, an excuse for inaction. Because justice has been delayed for so long as a result, it is more difficult and expensive, of course, to achieve justice now than if these cases had been properly pursued from the start.

Some would argue that the difficulty and expense – something brought about by our failure to pursue justice vigorously in the past – should be reason enough to forget about pursuing justice today. This argument, of course, is perverse. Human life is priceless. That’s why there is no statute of limitations on murder.

Yes, it is important to set priorities in law enforcement. But we must remember that these were not just murder cases. These were cases in which the criminal justice system failed. Prosecuting them now not only brings closure to the families but also vindicates the justice system itself.

Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of saying that though the arc of the moral universe may be long, it bends toward justice. Before our nation closes the books on the civil rights era, we should turn over every stone to seek justice for the martyrs of the movement. For every case where justice is finally achieved, there are 10 for which it will never happen. Justice in one case will have to serve as a symbol for many others.