WASHINGTON — By nearly unanimous consent, the House of Representatives agreed Wednesday to create a "cold case" squad in the Justice Department to go after civil rights murders that are still on the books.
The Senate is expected to follow suit.
The bill is the culmination of work begun two years ago by then-Sen. Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican, and Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. Talent lost his re-election bid last fall.
Alvin Sykes, a Kansas City civil rights activist, who encouraged Talent to spearhead the effort, called the bill's passage "a good day for justice."
"It's very important to this country that the U.S. Congress says for America that we need to take care of our unfinished business by bringing to the bar of justice any and all perpetrators who still may be alive who were involved in these lynchings so long ago," he said.
The bill is called the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, after a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago who was found murdered in 1955. He'd been visiting relatives in Mississippi and had whistled at a white woman in a grocery store the day of his death. His mutilated body was found later.
The case has never been solved. But public outrage surrounding the murder was one of many incidents that helped trigger the civil rights movement.
"This legislation helps rectify the inequities of the past and provides justice to those it has seemingly forgotten," said Republican Rep. Kenny Hulshof of Missouri, a co-sponsor of the bill. "The passage of time is no reason to deny justice."
The bill designates officials within the civil rights sections of the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate and prosecute unsolved cases that occurred before 1970 and resulted in death.
"What it means is we're going to be able to focus now on these terrible murders and doing justice, or at least find the truth," Talent said. "We're going to find out, unfortunately, a lot more of those kind of crimes than even we now know."