The glacial pace of justice
Attorney General Eric Holder is circulating in Congress his second report on the Justice Department's efforts to solve 109 murder cases in the South during the 1950s and '60s that appear to have been racially motivated. What began as a Justice Department initiative in 2006 to investigate cold cases became a mandate when the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act became law in 2008.
"We believe that we have made great progress this year," the report concludes. The department prosecuted two cases, both holdovers from before the initiative, and closed 54 without prosecution.
The report doesn't address the 53 other cases but devotes many of its 12 pages to throat-clearing, describing the processes Justice has undertaken to get ready to organize, to prepare, to gear up and to gather the information it would need to investigate cases it should have resolved over the past 50 years.
Fifteen times in 12 pages the report touts Justice and FBI "outreach" and "reaching out" to black establishment organizations and at university and government conferences -- as though that is where cases against Ku Klux Klansmen are going to be cracked. In short, the report is a view from where Justice and the FBI seem to be sitting: the sidelines.
The Justice Department has a good track record of putting Klan terrorists behind bars when they get into court. But it has had trouble turning long-standing pleas and evidence from victims' families, as well as the hundreds of thousands of civil rights cold-case records in its files, into active investigations, witness and evidence development, and courtroom showdowns.
Justice and the FBI have not, on their own, generated a single case from the list of 109, or from many other murders in their voluminous files. If Congress's mandate meant hard-charging investigations, lawmakers may be surprised at Justice's self-description of a more passive role: "The Department stands ready to lend our assistance, expertise, and resources to assist in the investigation and possible prosecution of these matters."
Every case that Justice has successfully prosecuted has been the result of work by investigative reporters. The killers of Medgar Evers; the four little girls in the Birmingham church; Vernon Dahmer; Ben Chester White; and Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman would not have been prosecuted and convicted without the discoveries made by reporter Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.
A former Alabama state trooper, James Bonard Fowler, is under indictment for killing Jimmie Lee Jackson in February 1965 -- the shooting that triggered Bloody Sunday and the Selma-to-Montgomery march -- only because Anniston Star reporter John Fleming revealed that Fowler admitted pulling the trigger.
Unrepentant Klansman James Ford Seale is in jail for torturing and killing black teenagers Charles Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee in southwest Mississippi in 1964 because of extraordinary digging by Canadian Broadcasting Corp. journalist David Ridgen and Moore's brother, Thomas. Armed with video cameras, old FBI documents and moxie, the men discovered that Seale, who for years had been reported dead, was in fact alive and that another Klansman who had witnessed the black men being whipped was willing to testify against Seale.
For more than three years, law professors Janis McDonald and Paula Johnson of Syracuse University and Margaret Burnham of Northeastern University, aided by their students, have broken important ground, working at a pace and with a passion far exceeding anything Justice or the FBI has shown. Rarely do they or the investigative reporters and documentary filmmakers I work with through the Civil Rights Cold Case Project (http://www.coldcases.org) come across FBI tracks.
Our experience also suggests the FBI isn't standing as ready as the Justice report says. Stanley Nelson, editor of the Concordia Sentinel weekly in Ferriday, La., has identified a number of witnesses, by name, in the 1964 arson-murder of Frank Morris, the black owner of a shoe repair shop there. The FBI has let months or years go by before seeking out those witnesses.
Nelson has written extensively about a little-known Klan offshoot, the Silver Dollar Group, that operated with impunity in eastern Louisiana and southwest Mississippi in the mid-1960s and that may have been responsible for three murders still on the FBI list. Two sons of a late Klansman, Sonny and Leland Boyd, were 19 and 16 when their father helped form the group; their memories of being at the Shamrock Inn when the group was formed, of hauling explosives to their attic and of watching Klansmen test explosives by blowing up tree stumps at Sunday fish fries dominated Nelson's front page in the winter of 2008-09.
The FBI has never called them. Worse, Sonny Boyd has said that when he called an FBI resident agent in Louisiana offering to tell what he knows, the agent said that unless Boyd knew specifically who killed Frank Morris, he wasn't interested. That agent has been replaced. But his successor has been given little time to probe civil rights murders over the past year.
Too many families whose relatives were killed by the Klan have waited too long. Perpetrators, witnesses and powerful narratives of history are dying every day. "I've waited 44 years for this phone call," the daughter of Clifton Walker, gunned down in Woodville, Miss., in early 1964, blurted out when someone called in March 2008 for information about her dad's murder.
The caller was Civil Rights Cold Case reporter Ben Greenberg. Two years later, the Walker family still hopes to hear from the FBI.
(This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Washington Post on August 8, 2010)