Photo by David Ridgen
Today in the American South, scores of civil rights murders remain unsolved, uninvestigated, unprosecuted, and untold. Those two legacies of violence and silence still haunt the region and continue to damage race relations in the United States.
Many histories have been written about the struggle for civil rights; many documentaries have been made about the movement and the resistance that rose up against it. But the history of the South and of the United States still has huge, important, undocumented holes where myths and mysteries reside, threatening to undermine the nation’s goal of putting racial conflict behind.
The Civil Rights Cold Case Project is an unprecedented collaboration bringing together the power of investigative reporting, narrative writing, documentary filmmaking and interactive multimedia production to reveal the long-neglected truth behind unsolved civil rights murders, and to facilitate reconciliation and healing.
The Project reporters have already produced extraordinary information in high-profile cases that prosecutors have used to build criminal cases against killers and conspirators who had walked free for more than 40 years. To date, every civil rights murder case that has been reopened and successfully prosecuted was the direct result of an investigation initiated by a journalist.
That will continue. But the greater goal and ultimate hope of the project is that the stories we tell, even about cases that can no longer be prosecuted, will bring reconciliation for individuals, for communities and for the nation.
The spirit of repentance and reconciliation was captured by one of our reporters, Stanley Nelson, earlier this year when he wrote about his conversations with the son of a violent Ku Klux Klan leader, Earcel Boyd Sr. Over several weeks, Leland Boyd described the racial hatred that poisoned his father and how he himself had rejected his father’s attitudes long ago. He explained how his father, on his deathbed, wept in fear of dying "because of all the things that he had done wrong in his life."
Leland searched for the words to explain the pain of watching his father try to expel the burden of his racist behavior. He turned to the words of a black poet, Maya Angelou: "There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you."
With stories like that, the Cold Case partners are driven by the belief that the divisive and painful legacy of racial injustice in the South can only be healed through the determined pursuit of justice for victims who have been forgotten or ignored.
Led by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Paperny Films and public television station WNET.org in New York, the project involves many other partnerships, including with the National Security Archive, law and journalism schools, National Public Radio, victims’ family members, and others who will bring the full weight of a coordinated, independent investigation to bear.
Our media platforms—print, television, radio and new media—will be fully integrated, fed by interconnected storylines and resources, all anchored by the work of the investigative journalists. Taken together, the media products will constitute a dynamic, living work of journalism, feeding back and forth across platforms and reaching the broadest possible audiences, who will be invited to participate as appropriate in generating information and testimony.
At the same time, the project is pressing federal and state governments for greater access to records they are holding. On the federal level, the project has met with Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Rep. John Lewis with a proposal that would eliminate the protracted, frustrating processes that have led to the slow release of incomplete, inconsistent and heavily redacted documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
Lewis agreed to sponsor -- and Holder said he is open to -- a proposal that would create an independent review board that would be responsible for gathering from federal agencies and releasing to the public all files, documents and other historic materials related to the racial terror and hate crimes that occurred in the South during the civil rights era.
Forty and fifty years ago, the murderers and their associates would threaten with death any witnesses or people with information (such as victims’ families or progressive whites) who dared try to seek justice. Klansmen could abduct, torture and kill black men, women and children, and do it with near impunity. The families of victims, faced with the sudden disappearance of a loved one—or discovery of their brutalized remains—struggled with more than inconsolable grief, uncertainty and fears. They were burdened with silence. Nearly a hundred years since slavery was legally abolished, in their “free” communities their lives were in constant danger, they had to swallow their truth and their rage, and justice was a sham. Their children grew up with this legacy.
Today, some of the witnesses, perpetrators, and victims’ family members are still alive. But the clock is ticking for reaching these people, the only living links to these crimes. We must find them and their stories before the evidence—and opportunities for justice and reconciliation—is lost with them.
Support for the Cold Case Project has come from the following foundations and individuals:
Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation
Open Society Institute
Corporation for Public Broadcasting