Many had high hopes, but after nearly 8 years there are still very few answers.
Nearly 8 years ago the FBI began reopening cold cases from the Civil Rights era in an initiative described as “a comprehensive effort to investigate racially motivated murders,” from that time in history. Two years later, in 2008, Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which was named for the 14-year-old black boy who was “tortured and killed in Mississippi in 1955, for supposedly flirting with a white woman.” The New York Times reports that at least 112 cold cases from that era have been reopened, but in almost all of these cases the families of the victims have received letters, many of them hand-delivered by agents, informing them that after the new investigation the cases have been closed, “there is nothing more to be done — and please accept out condolences.”
Adam S. Lee, the chief of the F.B.I. section overseeing civil rights, said that the bureau had been rigorous in pursuing these cold cases, following any evidence that might lead to prosecutions. But, he added, “That doesn’t bring the emotional closure that the public wants, or needs, in cases like this.”
From the outset, the government cited the formidable challenges it faced: the limited federal jurisdiction in some cases, the statute of limitations in others, and, of course, time’s passage. Suspects and witnesses die. Evidence is lost. Memories dull.
Families who held out hope for prosecution have been disappointed. In a report to Congress in October, the Justice Department acknowledged the low yield from what it always considered to be long-shot efforts to develop cases worthy of prosecution.
Many who championed the effort early on, including Alvin Sykes, envisioned a “broad, aggressive effort to identify and investigate old civil rights cases.” Sykes said, “Truth was the more realistic goal,” but after the “narrower scope” of the initiative became obvious he said he “lowered his expectations.” It became apparent to many that the FBI was more interested in pursuing the few cases that had some chance of going to trial, rather than discovering the whole truth of what happened during that time of violence and upheaval in the US.
The FBI’s efforts have resulted in only one “successful federal prosecution.” James Ford Seale was convicted in 2007, “in connection with the deaths of two young black men in 1964.” The report released last October also said that the FBI had, “assisted in the 2010 state prosecution of a former Alabama trooper, James Bonard Fowler, in the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson,” who was a civil rights marcher who died after a “confrontation” with police in 1965. As the Times reports however,
Left unsaid in the report was that these prosecutions were prompted in large part by the work of investigative journalists like Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., John Fleming of the The Anniston Star in Alabama, and David Ridgen, a Canadian documentary filmmaker.
Also left unsaid was how the Justice Department’s approach and commitment to the endeavor have been questioned by some of those who have been toiling in the same troubled fields of history.
“That’s what we’ve been struggling with for the last six years,” said Janis L. McDonald, a law professor at Syracuse University and a co-director of the law school’s Cold Case Justice Initiative. “We’ve been asking for a regional task force, or for them to go out and say how many people really were killed. Neither has been the focus of the Justice Department.”
So while this cold case initiative may have been undertaken with the best intentions, the reality, almost 8 years later, is that there are still very few answers for the families of those who were lost to the racial violence which was so prevalent during the Civil Rights movement.
Photo: AP/Bill Hudson