WASHINGTON -- Congress moved Tuesday to set aside $100 million to create a Justice Department unit devoted to investigating unsolved murders from the civil rights era.
A bill named in honor of slain black teenager Emmett Till, now advancing through the House and Senate, would establish a division of FBI agents and federal prosecutors who would focus strictly on the racially motivated slayings.
On Tuesday, the widows of murdered NAACP field officer Medgar Evers and civil rights worker Michael Schwerner told a House panel that Congress must act quickly to resolve these cases before memories and evidence fade even more.
"It would speak not only to the family members and survivors but to the nation as a whole, that these people's lives were not in vain," said Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams. "I truly believe it would give a sense of relief and a deep sense of dignity and pride."
Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., echoed that sentiment, saying "I view this as now or never legislation ... if we are ever going to do as much as we possibly can, we need to do it now."
The legislation, which passed a House Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday with unanimous bipartisan support, would dedicate $10 million a year for 10 years, as well as another $1.5 million per year to improve federal coordination with local and state law enforcement agencies.
A similar measure is slated for committee action in the Senate later this week.
Lawmakers amended the House version Tuesday to allow some money to go toward grants for state and local agencies when federal prosecutions are not possible.
Fresh off successful prosecutions in the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing and the 1964 slayings of Schwerner and fellow civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, the Justice Department already has reopened investigations into about a dozen suspicious deaths in the South.
At Tuesday's hearing, deputy assistant attorney general Grace Chung Becker said the department plans to review at least 100 more cases, many of them based on files turned over by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which has long pressed for more prosecutions.
Becker and others cautioned that the cases are very difficult to prosecute because witnesses have died or forgotten details, evidence has been lost and laws have changed.
The bill is HR 923.