WASHINGTON — Almost as soon as George Zimmerman was pronounced “not guilty” in a Florida courtroom, the cry went up.
The U.S. government must get “justice for Trayvon,” insisted protesters angry about the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. The call will resound again later this month through events marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Attorney General Eric Holder, the first black man to lead the nation’s law enforcement, says the Justice Department is investigating.
Why would the feds consider stepping into a state murder case?
The federal government has claimed its power of protecting civil rights against violence as far back as the Reconstruction era. Empowered by constitutional amendments and early civil rights laws passed after the Civil War, the government sought to protect newly freed blacks and their voting rights, mostly from the Ku Klux Klan.
But then court decisions, the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow laws essentially “defanged” the federal government of its power to police civil rights when state and local governments would not, said Darrell Miller, a Duke University law professor.
It wasn’t until the 1960s civil rights movement — exemplified by the historic Aug. 28, 1963, march — that new laws began strengthening the federal role.
Now, the Justice Department is expected to pursue civil rights prosecutions. But in many cases that inflame racial passions, federal prosecutors don’t find the evidence needed to support civil rights charges.
As the burgeoning civil rights movement gathered force in the 1960s, demonstrators were brutalized and killed, sometimes at the hands of law officers. Many slayings remain unsolved. But in some cases where local authorities failed to go after the attackers or all-white juries refused to convict, the federal government moved in with civil rights charges.
The strategy won federal convictions in some racist killings that had jolted the nation, among them the 1964 slayings of three young civil rights workers — James Chaney, who was black, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were white — that would later inspire the movie “Mississippi Burning.”
These cases helped build public support for strengthening federal law enforcement’s hand through a series of civil rights laws. Notably, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 made it a U.S. crime to use threats or violence to interfere with someone’s employment, housing, travel or any of several other federally protected rights because of that person’s race, religion, color or national origin.
Over the years, Congress expanded what became known as “hate crime” law. Many states also adopted their own laws for crimes motivated by bias. And many cases with civil rights overtones were prosecuted under conventional murder and assault statutes.
Many federal civil rights cases involve police or other authorities abusing their power under “the color of law.” Unlike in hate crime cases, prosecutors don’t have to prove that these civil rights violations were motivated by racism or other bias.