March 29, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 33
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Better late than never:
Federal government to reopen civil rights-era cold cases

Marc H. Morial

During the summer of 1960, when the body of 12-year-old Freddie Robinson washed up on the shore of a creek in Edisto Island, S.C., local law enforcement authorities concluded that he must have drowned accidentally. But Robinson’s family suspected otherwise — that he had been murdered for dancing with white girls.

Seven years later in Memphis, Tenn., just a few days after participating in a civil rights demonstration, 16-year-old Larry Payne was found shot to death in a city housing project — allegedly by a police officer who accused him of looting.

The deaths of Robinson and Payne are just two of nearly 100 unsolved civil rights-era deaths that the U.S. Justice Department in conjunction with the FBI will consider reopening as part of a widespread agency initiative announced last month. The National Urban League, NAACP and Southern Poverty Center will be working with federal authorities to help produce evidence and witnesses that could be helpful in solving some of these cases from a bygone era when, to quote a recent Seattle Times editorial, “it was open season on blacks in the South.”

Recent successful prosecutions of three high-profile civil rights-era murders brought out of the cold case file prompted national law enforcement officials to consider taking another look at unsolved deaths of blacks from the 1950s and 1960s.

In 2001, a jury convicted Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry for the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. In 2003, Ernest Avants got life in prison for the 1966 murder of Ben Chester White, an elderly black farm worker. And Edgar Ray Killen was sentenced in 2005 to three 20-year terms for his involvement in the 1964 deaths of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.

It’s about time our federal government took comprehensive action to wash the stain of the senseless violence against Americans of color throughout the South in the 1950s and 1960s out of the fabric of our society. But better late than never.

Interestingly enough, the news of the new Justice Department initiative came down on the same day that a grand jury failed to deliver an indictment against Carolyn Bryant, the wife of one of the suspected killers of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicagoan who made the fatal error of whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. Bryant was thought to have been in the truck that hauled Till off to his death. Her husband Roy and J.W. Milam, the two main suspects in Till’s killing, died long ago.

Attorney Doug Jones, who in 2001 won convictions against two of the 1963 Birmingham church bombers, expressed skepticism over whether the initiative would break down the reticence of witnesses of murders from so long ago and bring about a deluge of new information in these cases.

“We brought tons of people to the grand jury [for the church bombing case], some of whom I’m absolutely convinced committed perjury, saying they didn’t know about something. Could I prove it? No way,” Jones told the Birmingham News recently. “But if there was ever a case for people to step forward to do some reconciliation or right a wrong, it was one when four innocent girls were killed in a bomb in a church. And guess what? We didn’t have anybody like that.”

I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Jones. Reopening these cases may seem like a waste of time and resources to some in light of the years that have lapsed. But even if the Justice Department’s initiative garners no new indictments or no new convictions, it is well worth the effort.

African Americans who lived in the South before the civil rights movement knew all too well about terrorism decades before the nation witnessed Muslim extremists slamming commercial jets into the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. The brand that affected Southern blacks came packaged differently — or rather euphemistically — in the form of “Jim Crow” or “the Southern way of life.” In the century after the Civil War, Southern blacks endured a reign of terror. They watched their homes, businesses and churches burn to the ground. They grieved for their loved ones and friends who were beaten and murdered by lynch mobs.

Not in a million years would the federal government resist seeking justice in the World Trade Center terrorism case. Why should it be any different in the cases of innocent African Americans taken out by lynch mobs in the South?

The Justice Department and FBI deserve applause for attempting to prove that, in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Marc H. Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.

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