Klux in the Klan burn a cross to show their solidarity in the cause of murderous racism.
At the United Nations Thursday, a team of Syracuse University College of Law students will accuse
the U.S. Justice Department of failing to account for the hundreds of African Americans who were murdered or disappeared during the civil rights era. The presentation is the latest effort of the Cold Case Justice Initiative
(CCJI). The group was founded because of law students' investigation of the unsolved 1964 slaying of shoe shop owner Frank Morris in Ferriday, Louisiana.
Against continuing civil rights activism, particularly the voter-registering efforts of "Freedom Summer" that year, the terrorist Ku Klux Klan vowed retaliation. And although Morris, a craftsman well respected by both blacks and whites, had not been involved in the civil rights movement, two Kluxxers broke into his store, poured gasoline around, forced Morris at gunpoint back into the store—“Get back in there, nigger,” one of them said—and set the place alight. He died of his burns four days later.
He was just one of many. Under the supervision of Syracuse University Professors Paula C. Johnson and Janis L. McDonald, two dozen students began investigating the Morris case as part of their degree work in 2007-2008. Their work led to an FBI special agent being assigned to the case and a pledge from the U.S. attorney to do a full review.
The Syracuse project developed into the CCJI. Combing through thousands of records, 196 suspicious, seemingly racially motivated deaths in the 1940s, '50s and '60s were turned up in Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia. Some of the killers are presumably still alive. In 2012, CCJI submitted the names of the victims to the DOJ for further investigation and action.
The FBI had its own separate list of 126. However, all but 11 of those cases have been closed with nobody having been prosecuted. Under the Emmet Till Act passed in 2008, the DOJ has put considerable resources into investigating these cold cases, according to Attorney General Eric Holder. But none of the 196 names CCJI came up with have been added to the DOJ or FBI’s victim list. The Guardian's Ed Pilkington reports:
[T]he cold case lawyers will tell the UN [human rights council in Geneva] that there have been several basic failings in the way the DoJ has gone about meeting its obligations under the act. They will argue that the total of 126 victims identified by the FBI is a huge understatement of the scale of racial killings in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, pointing out that the list of names has barely changed since the new law was introduced. [...]
Stanley Nelson, a reporter with the Concordia Sentinel in Louisiana, has spent more than seven years investigating racial violence in Concordia parish and across the state lines in Natchez, Mississippi. This area of the deep south was the epicenter of the violent white backlash in the civil rights era and was the home of the Silver Dollar Group, a vicious offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan.
Nelson said he had been “personally frustrated by the way in which the DoJ and the FBI have handled the new look into these cold crimes”. Instead of setting up specialist teams of detectives and prosecutors that could focus their energies exclusively on trying to clear up unsolved murders, they left the investigations to regional FBI offices already busy with current criminal cases. As a result the attention given was patchy at best.
Holder has noted that investigations of such cases are immensely difficult because witnesses have died, memories have faded, evidence has disappeared. But the advocates of CCJI say those difficulties should not be excuse for giving up. They could not be more right.