Over the past 20 years, every unsolved civil rights murder case that has been reopened and successfully prosecuted in the South was the direct result of an investigation initiated by a journalist.
So the FBI’s decision to close, without prosecution or further disclosure, all but a few of the 108 unsolved murder cases it began re-examining three years ago, only highlights the vital need for investigative reporting that can find the truth, tell the stories and fill in the gaps in our nation’s history.
The Civil Rights Cold Case Project (www.coldcases.org), a team of investigative reporters, documentary filmmakers and interactive media producers, is digging into unsolved civil rights murders in the South. Led by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Paperny Films, the project — which includes Clarion Ledger reporter and recent MacArthur Genius award winner Jerry Mitchell, and Pulitzer Prize winner Hank Klibanoff — has been focused for more than two years on race murders and crimes primarily in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
“These cases are not cold when it comes to the relatives and friends of the victims,” said Robert J. Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting. “Our reporting has found that these cases resonate powerfully today. Too many Americans are unaware of the terror of that era and how it has affected our country in terms of race and reconciliation.”
In a Washington Post story, the FBI said that it was discontinuing its pursuit of all but a handful of the cases it believed had great potential for prosecution when the initiative was announced in 2007. Cynthia Deitle, head of the FBI’s civil rights unit, told the Post that agents and prosecutors concluded that almost a fifth of the cases were not racially motivated. In other cases, agents hit dead ends or dead perpetrators. It continues to investigate a few cases.
“While we welcomed FBI involvement in these cases,” said Hank Klibanoff, managing editor of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, “we always felt that our goals – deep reporting, story-telling and racial healing – had significance and value regardless of whether federal agents and prosecutors felt they could win a conviction. So while the FBI might pass on cases because the killers have died, we remain intensely interested because these stories are compelling and worth telling. There are family members of victims and perpetrators who deserve to know what happened, and there are history books and classrooms that are incomplete without this information.”
The Civil Rights Cold Case Project also urged the FBI to make all the files of the closed cases available to the public without redactions and without the long and difficult processes demanded by the federal Freedom of Information Act.
“There’s no reason now for this history to remain hidden,” Klibanoff said. “And there are compelling reasons for the records to be opened. A perpetrator of a racial murder should not be given special protection from disclosure and scrutiny simply because he had the misfortune of dying before he could be prosecuted.”
The Project also urged Congress to pass legislation that would ease public access to government-held records from the modern civil rights era. Working with Northeastern University Law Professor Margaret Burnham and her Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, Klibanoff has helped develop ideas for legislation that would create an independent review board to examine all those government-held civil rights records and release as many as possible, as soon as possible. The Civil Rights Cold Case Project supports this effort.
Congress acted in a similar manner twice before, both in the 1990s, when it created independent review boards to examine the John F. Kennedy Assassination Papers and the Nazi/Japanese War Crimes Papers; in both cases, Congress declared that the federal Freedom of Information Act had fallen short of its purpose – a situation the Civil Rights Cold Case Project believe exists today with civil rights records.
Sen. John Kerry recently introduced legislation that would create such a board to examine and release papers related to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Kerry’s office has said the senator would favor broadening the bill to include records of all civil rights murders.
The Project’s aim is to secure adequate funding to bring on additional reporters to join the existing team and produce ongoing reporting for newspapers and websites; a series of short and long-form documentaries for public television, in partnership with WNET.org in New York; reporting for National Public Radio; and a groundbreaking website and educational outreach effort that would engage victims’ families and communities in the investigative process.
Klibanoff noted that at least two of the handful of cases the FBI is still pursuing were prompted by Civil Rights Cold Case Project reporters.
Reporting by John Fleming of The Anniston Star led to federal criminal charges against a former Alabama state trooper for the 1965 shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Marion, Alabama, an act that helped trigger the historic Selma to Montgomery March. The trooper awaits trial.
In Ferriday, Louisiana, weekly newspaper editor Stanley Nelson’s extraordinary reporting on the 1964 murder of black shopkeeper Frank Morris led to a current FBI and local investigation, the posting of a reward and the possibility a grand jury will be empanelled. Nelson, working with thousands of pages of government documents that took nearly two years to obtain and aided by the children of former Klansmen, also has revealed important new information about a violent Klan offshoot, the Silver Dollar group, and its involvement in two other murders: Wharlest Jackson in 1967 and Joe Ed Edwards in 1964. Significant work has been done on those cases by two allies of the cold case project, law professors Paula C. Johnson and Janis L. McDonald, who run the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University.
Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi has been responsible since the late 1980s for prosecutions and convictions in some of the nation’s highest profile civil rights cases, including the assassination of Medgar Evers, the Birmingham church bombing, and the “Mississippi Burning” murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman in Philadelphia, MS. Mitchell continues to find stories in the 40,000 pages of “Mississippi Burning” documents.
Two other team members, Canadian filmmaker David Ridgen and Thomas Moore, the brother of a young black man abducted and murdered in Meadville, Mississippi, produced documentary reporting that led to the federal prosecution and conviction of a Klansman for the murder – and a public apology by another Klansman.
Project reporter Ben Greenberg continues to break new ground on the 1964 murder of Clifton Walker, who was driving home from work in Woodville, Mississippi, when he was shot multiple times on a lonely road. Greenberg has found witnesses who were long ago believed to have died or disappeared.
“Investigative reporting takes enormous time and resources, and it’s even more challenging at a time when reporters are being called on to help their newsrooms by covering an ever-changing array of topics and stories,” Klibanoff said. “It is our hope that we can attract the resources to free up those reporters and many others who want to join us as we dig out and tell these hidden stories from our difficult past.”