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US Legislation Pushed to Solve African-American Civil Rights Murders

Members of the U.S. Congress are pushing for legislation that would call on the federal government to investigate the unsolved murders of African-Americans during the struggle for civil rights during the 1950s and 60s. It is estimated that hundreds of African-Americans may have been killed because of racial hatred.

The bill, known as the Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, would create two new sections within the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- the FBI -- and the U.S. Department of Justice -- to investigate and prosecute the murders of the African-Americans. The measure, introduced last year, would cost an estimated $11 million to establish the two offices and foster relations with state authorities to solve the crimes.

At a news conference, (Republican) Senator Jim Talent said many of the crimes were not fully investigated by local officials. "There are many crimes that were committed that we do not know about because people have been afraid to come forward. Now there will be a section of the government which will do nothing but focus on this, and we think folks will be willing to come forward."

The idea for the legislation grew out of the case of Emmett Till, whose murder in 1955 helped spark the civil rights movement. The 14-year-old was visiting a relative in the southern state of Mississippi when he allegedly whistled at a white woman.

A week later he was found in a river -- beaten and shot to death. During a trial that drew international attention, an all-white jury acquitted two white men accused of the crime. No one has ever been convicted, and the men reportedly later bragged about the killing.

(Democratic) Congressman John Lewis, a prominent civil rights leader, says the purpose of the act is not to open up new wounds, but to begin the process of healing. "The Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act can help us bring this dark chapter of our history to a close, by delivering the focus and the resources necessary to put the mistakes and blunders of the past behind us," he said.

Joe Leonard is the director of the Black Leadership Forum -- a consortium of civil rights groups. He thinks that with the federal government involved, more cases will be solved and help give closure to families whose loved ones were killed or disappeared.

"The people in those communities know who did it. Friendly whites have said, have whispered to the families, we know who did this."

Today, DNA material, used to determine a person's genetic profile, may also help provide evidence that was not available before. But with other evidence missing, and witnesses who have died, it may be difficult to solve some cases. But civil rights groups and other supporters of the legislation are hopeful that those who committed these horrible crimes will be brought to justice.