The FBI's slow race against time
As far as I knew, none of the children of Clifton Walker had ever been contacted by FBI agents regarding the February 28, 1964 racial killing of their father, near Woodville, MS. Still, I thought I should confirm this, so a few nights ago I gave a call to Walker's second daughter Catherine and asked her if her family has heard from the FBI.
"I wish we had, no," Catherine answered.
I was checking with Catherine because I had just received the DOJ's second annual report on its activities regarding civil rights era racial murders (PDF), as required by the Emmet Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act. In the section of the report on "Notifying Victim Family Members," I read:
The FBI has devoted considerable resources to locating the next of kin for the victims, successfully locating family members for 93 of the 122 victims.
I thought: well, I located the Walkers two and a half years ago with almost no resources and without the benefit of even standard reporters' tools, like access to Lexis Nexis. The Walkers haven't reported hearing from the FBI previously, but maybe they've heard from the Bureau since I last talked to them.
"Nobody has contacted me," Catherine said.
"Could the FBI have contacted one of your sisters or your brother," I asked?
"No," Catherine said, "they would have told me."
The Till Bill requires that the Department of Justice "expeditiously investigate unsolved civil rights murders" and "provide all the resources necessary to ensure timely and thorough investigations in the cases involved."
Thus the DOJ reported:
As part of the department’s efforts to uncover relevant information regarding our unsolved civil rights era homicides, we continue to engage in a comprehensive outreach program, meeting with a broad array of interested individuals and organizations.
Outreach has not included reaching the Walkers---though, as you'll see in the list of cases, below, the Clifton Walker murder is one of the 50 some cases that is still open and under active investigation. What has FBI outreach involved, then?
- Two meetings with NGOs that investigate and do advocacy regarding civil rights era racial murders
- An unspecified number of meetings with national civil rights groups, such as the NAACP, National Urban League and Southern Poverty Law Center "to encourage those organizations to reach out to their field offices and to try to obtain information on cold cases"
- Attending the Mississippi Civil Rights Veterans Conference in Jackson, MS in 2009 and 2010
- Attending a conference on an long unresolved case in Monroe, GA
- Attending a town hall meeting at a film screening held in Syracuse by the Syracuse University School of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative
- Attending a town hall meeting at a film screening held in Baton Rouge, LA
- Outreach to FBI field offices and US Attorney's offices in districts where there are open cold cases
- Presenting at the 2009 Criminal Civil Rights Conference at the National Advocacy Center in Columbia, SC
- Participation in the annual conferences of the National Black Prosecutors Asssociation
- Meeting with the Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol, the Alabama Bureau of Investigation and "numerous other state and local law enforcement agencies"
The report does not detail any time spent in the communities where the murders that they say they are investigating have occurred.
The Clifton Walker FBI file, which I've obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, mentions in passing seven other victims whose names are not included on the list of cases the FBI is addressing. All of the reporters that I know who work on civil rights era cold cases have found the same thing: one case leads to another. To draw out the connections and make the necessary discoveries, investigators have to go into the communities where the murders occurred and give local people the opportunity to come forward and share what they know and what they've heard.
When I called Catherine Walker I had two important pieces of news to share with her: first, that the DOJ report shows that the FBI has not closed her father's murder case and second, that Wiley Cavin died in Woodville on July 22 at the age of 85. To our knowledge, Cavin was the last living member of the racially mixed carpool that Clifton Walker rode with to and from work at the International Paper plant in Natchez, MS the day he was murdered. Cavin was therefore one of the last people to see Walker alive.
I spoke with Cavin over the phone last summer. He recalled being interviewed by the FBI as well being under FBI surveillance during the spring of 1964, following the murder:
They set up at that little old store and watched me like a hawk watching a chicken.
Cavin had not been re-contacted by the FBI at the time when we spoke last summer. In fact, none of the living subjects mentioned in state and federal documents, whom I have interviewed over the last three years, have reported being contacted by the FBI outside of 1964.
It turned out Catherine had some news for me, too:
Remember Wright Williams, my uncle, the one who went to Baton Rouge to contact the FBI about Daddy's murder? He died last weekend, in Atlanta.
"They are dying real fast," she went on.
That's three in the year 2010. First Mr. Nettles*, then Wiliey Cavin and Wright Williams. There is an urgency I feel to get the FBI and the Justice Department to get some answers before they die. Once they're dead that's the end of it. We never get closure.
It is heartening to know that the Walker case has not been closed, but what exactly does it mean that it's open? The Till Bill has not been fully funded by Congress---and that may be a significant part of the problem. These investigations cannot be part-time work for agents or for the federal and local government prosecutors and investigators assigned to these cases. Regional task forces, including full time special agents and attorneys need to be assigned for every area involved.
Without that kind of structure in place, the FBI cannot make the "great progress" that the DOJ report claims has been made on civil rights era unsolved murders. Not one single suspect is under federal indictment, fifty four cases are being closed and only two new investigation files have been opened this year. The Justice Department has not empanelled a single investigative grand jury.
Even where prosecutions are not possible, the FBI has a responsibility to provide as much information as it can to the victims' families. "The truth is the only thing that can take this big burden off of our shoulders," Catherine said "to know exactly who it was that killed Daddy."
*J.B. Nettles owned the truck stop where Clifton Walker's murder was allegedly planned. I interviewed him with Catherine in 2009. He died in February 2010.
(Left to right) Shirley Walker, Clifton Walker, Jr., Catherine Walker on Poor House Road, Wilkinson County, MS, near the spot where their father Clifton Walker was gunned down by Klansmen. (Benjamin Greenberg)
- Hank Klibanoff, "The glacial pace of justice," Washington Post, August 8, 2010
- Jerry Mitchell, "Report: Half of FBI's civil rights-era cold cases are closed," Jackson Clarion-Ledger, August 3, 2010
- The Attorney General's Second Annual Report to Congress Pursuant to the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act of 2007, May 13 2010 (PDF)
Though the DOJ and FBI has frequently alluded to a list of more than 100 victims, this report is the first instance that I am aware of where the full list has been made public, along with information about whether or not the case is still open. I've pulled the list out of the report for easier access. You can view it, below.