Righting the Wrongs of the Past

Senator and presidential candidate Chris Dodd (D-CT) is one of the chief sponsors of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which would fund the investigations of unsolved Civil Rights crimes. He explains the bill's importance and why getting it passed is a personal goal.

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TONY COX, host:

And now for more on the bill itself, we are joined by one of its chief sponsors in Congress, Connecticut senator and Democratic presidential candidate, Chris Dodd. Senator, good to have you on the program as well.

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): Tony, good to be with you. Thanks for having me on.

COX: Thank you, sir. Senator, NEWS & NOTES spoke with you about this incarnation of the bill way back in July of 2005, along with then Senator Jim Talent. It's been two, I assume, pretty tough years to get to this point legislatively and you're not quite at the finish line yet. How different does the bill look today than it did two years ago and what do you think the final bill is going to look like?

Sen. DODD: Well, the bill looks pretty much the same, I mean, what we tried then to get accomplished a couple of years ago. And yesterday, the House voted - I forget the exact number except I know they're only two members of the House of Representatives who voted against the bill, one of those rare occurrences these days where everything seems to be 51-49.

And the decisions in the Senate, I expect sort of the same result. Unfortunately, one United States senator, Senator Coburn of Oklahoma has been the - putting a hold on the bill for the fictitious reason that this is not an offset for the $11 million of authorization of money we're seeking.

Under the law, there's no requirement for an offset with an authorization. There is for an appropriations - I don't want to get - boy, your listening audience where the procedural - arcane subject matters. But I don't know what his true motivations are.

But it's unfortunate because, as you just heard from John Brittain, every day that goes by, every week that goes by, every month that goes by, witnesses get older. Obviously those who should be brought to the justice get older. And so - the more difficult problem arises in assembling evidence - sometimes, many years later to prosecute and convict those responsible for these crimes.

And so I'm disappointed that we're not able to pass on the anniversary of the case that has been discussed already here - the case of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner 43 years ago. And ironically, it's 2005 on this date that Edgar Ray Killen was brought to justice, 41 years - 42 years after that…

COX: To that case.

Sen. DODD: …situation. So I'd hope today, with the vote last night and the vote today in the Senate, that the significance of this day would give some additional bearing on the importance of this.

COX: Well, Senator, it's important to solve these cases, of course. But it's also important to safeguard the rights won through the deaths of so many. That job primarily falls to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. And I'm sure you are aware, it's been at the center of quite the political storm lately. Washington Post today running an extensive expose on the troubled division. Do you think that the Civil Rights Division has gone astray since its founding 50 years ago?

Sen. DODD: Well, I do and I'm disappointed. And for many reasons, not the least of which is my father was one of the people at the Justice Department, who put this Civil Rights Division together. So there's a familial history. And my father actually was a young prosecutor in the 1930s and '40s. He was trying civil rights cases in Arkansas. In fact, I just discovered he won a case in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1940…

COX: Really?

Sen. DODD: …which I didn't know about as a son. He died so many years ago. I didn't get a chance to talk to him as often as I wish I could have. So I'm disappointed to watch this administration take major steps back. And a very important question, I suspect, Tony, that your viewers or listeners are asking themselves, yeah, this is all great, you going back to solve this problem but isn't it important we look forward here and that do you want to go back and rip open history and so with there are all tragic events, shouldn't have happened, disgraced of what they did but we need to move on.

Well, my answer to that question, which I'm sure some people have, is the reason we can go on is by reminding people here that if you were - if you're one of the people involved in these crimes, I don't want you ever to have a peaceful night. And if you're one of the family members of those who lost their lives, I want you to know we're not going to quit on this.

And I think it's important that coming generations recognize that this generation didn't go to sleep, didn't retire, didn't give up on this. That these matters matter deeply, and that we're going to pursue you and pursue you and pursue you until your last breath, and if we can to bring you to the bar of justice.

So I'm disappointed because it's been pointed out every hour that goes by, it gets more difficult to do this but I will stick with this and we will get this bill passed.

COX: We're coming to the end of the time that we have but…

Sen. DODD: Yeah.

COX: …it will require, will it not, Senator Dodd, for this act to have some teeth, as far as enforcement is concern, for - at getting back to the issue of the Civil Rights Division for that division to actually do its job.

Senate. DODD: Yeah.

COX: Do you have any doubt about their willingness to do that?

Sen. DODD: Well, I do at this point but that shouldn't slow us down. This is one department at one time, and I know there are many people and the Justice Department - career personnel - who are very disappointed about the political leadership at the Justice Department. There are a lot of U.S. attorneys out there; they are people who dedicated their lives to the FBI and the Department of Justice who would more than willingly take on this responsibility of pursuing these cold cases.

And there will be a new president in a matter of months in this country who I hope will bring a different set of spree and determination and a sense of optimism and confidence about what this department ought to be doing.

So we may be disappointed with the leadership today. Don't lose faith in many who are there who do a very good job and fight very hard every day and recognize that it's just a matter of months before a new leadership will be in place to motivate and provide the kind of leadership in that division as well as in the department so that these matters would be pursued with a vigor that they ought to be.

COX: Senator Dodd, thank you very much for coming on. We appreciate it.

Sen. DODD: Thank you, Tony.

Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd helped introduce the Emit Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.

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