As part of the symposium panel on "Re- Trying Racial Injustices," I devote this Essay to an expansion of themes addressed in my earlier work on the reopening of civil rights era prosecutions. I draw upon this work, as well as upon the insights of my co-panelists Anthony Alfieri and Sherrilyn Ifill, to examine the reopening of the Emmett Till case and its critical race practice possibilities.
In this Essay, I consider other aspects of these "cleansing moments." Are they illusory? Do they provide a misleading sense of closure at the expense of the ongoing hard work of racial justice that leads up to -and must proceed from-those moments? What lessons or "teaching moments" might these cases create for critical race lawyers in their ongoing social justice work? In notable respects, the impetus to reopen long-dormant cases shares with critical legal theory a justified skepticism of the construct of finality and an idealistic vision of the possibilities for ultimate justice. Procedural and substantive bulwarks of finality may be necessary in a legalistic sense, but they do not signify closure or justice, particularly when structural inequality persists. Reopening, with its promise of restorative justice through racial healing and reconciliation, has the potential to provide the closure that mere finality lacks, but only if that restorative justice is authentic and far-reaching.
This Essay proceeds to address the above concerns as follows. In Part I, I discuss the Emmett Till case in greater detail, with brief contextual reference to two historical eras that frame it chronologically and thematically: lynching in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, and the civil rights movement of the mid-to late1950s. In Part II, I focus on the significance of the 2004 Till case reopening and lessons that it may offer for critical race practice. These lessons dovetail with recurrent questions in the literature of critical race theory and offer suggestions for fostering the integration of theory and practice (race praxis). Finally, I conclude that the Till case and other similar reopenings will yield transcendent meaning and "closure" only if a self-reflective approach propels them past the transitory "cleansing moments" toward a deeper commitment to restorative justice.
Margaret M. Russell,
Reopening the Emmett Till Case: Lessons and Challenges for Critical Race Practice
, 73 Fordham L. Rev. 2101
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/facpubs/112