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Bringing justice, and closure, in civil rights cold cases

Northeastern law professor Margaret Burnham calls it “perhaps the most prominent case of miscarriage of justice during the 1950s.”

In 1955, a black 14-year-old named Emmett Till was kidnapped and murdered after whistling at a white woman. Two white men—one of whom was the woman’s husband—were indicted in the Chicago teenager’s murder but acquitted by an all-white male jury. The men later admitted to the killing in an interview with Look magazine. “It was a brutal assault on our criminal justice system and made a mockery of the rule of law,” Burnham said of the case.

The murder and trial drew international attention and galvanized the civil rights movement. Years later, the case was reopened and a political movement followed to re-examine many unsolved murders of the civil rights era. That led to the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, which directed the Department of Justice and the FBI to coordinate the investigation of civil rights homicides prior to 1970 and collaborate state and local law enforcement in these cases. In mid-December, President Barack Obama signed legislation that permanently reauthorized the bill, which expands these investigations to cases through 1980.

The reauthorization act makes it clear that this is a national priority and sets forth the expectations that the DOJ and FBI will act vigorously and expeditiously to get this work done.
—Law professor Margaret Burnham

Burnham directs the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern’s School of Law, through which she and her students have investigated hundreds of cold cases involving anti-civil rights violence in the United States dating back to the 1930s. In recent years, this work has gained national headlines, from The Boston Globe to The Washington Post.

CRRJ and Syracuse University’s Cold Case Justice Initiative co-led a coalition of organizations advocating for the Emmett Till bill’s reauthorization, and in the fall co-sponsored a public briefing on the legislation in Washington. Among the key provisions in the final bill that CRRJ sought was additional federal funding to academic institutions doing work in this area.

“The reauthorization act makes it clear that this is a national priority and sets forth the expectations that the DOJ and FBI will act vigorously and expeditiously to get this work done,” Burnham said.

Law professor Margaret Burnham, left, and her students investigate cold cases involving anti-civil rights violence in the United States as part of Northeastern's Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. Photo courtesy of Northeastern's School of Law

Law professor Margaret Burnham, left, and her students investigate cold cases involving anti-civil rights violence in the United States as part of Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. Photo courtesy of Northeastern’s School of Law

Under the original law, federal authorities identified more than 100 cold cases to investigate further. One case that resulted in a federal prosecution involved the 1964 murders of two 19-year-olds in Franklin County, Mississippi. Separately, Burnham represented the victims’ families in a civil suit filed in 2008 against the county, alleging the sheriff’s office had had enough knowledge to prevent the murders. She headed a team of outside counsel and law students whose efforts led to a landmark settlement.

Federal authorities have noted that investigating historic cold cases is extremely difficult due to factors such as subjects or witnesses dying, lost evidence, or original investigations lacking the technical or scientific advances to be relied upon today. Part of federal authorities’ charge, as is CRRJ’s, is to help bring closure for the victims’ families. While CRRJ has helped federal authorities identify cold cases in which legal action remains appropriate, its primary focus is not pursuing prosecutions but rather creating accurate accounts of these events.

“We’re filling a gap here that is highly important and essential if the full story of this period is going to be told,” she said.

Burnham is now leading an effort to create an archive of historical records, legal documents, video and audio recordings, photos, and other materials. Burnham is working with digital humanities scholars at Northeastern to build the archive, which is intended to preserve the history of these cases and provide scholars with a robust resource of information on racial violence. Last year Burnham received an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, which in part is supporting the archive project.

Burnham said that once completed, the archive will “become the most important repository of documents about these cases in the country.”

Images, both via Flickr: Left (Image Editor); Right (Dave Barger)