WASHINGTON – Flanked by officials from the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center, FBI Director Robert Mueller last year announced with considerable fanfare a new partnership between his agency and civil rights organizations.
The goal: To bring justice in long-ignored murders from the civil rights era.
The outcome: Not one case has been prosecuted under the FBI’s Cold Case Initiative, which actually began two years ago with no fanfare at all.
The civil rights leaders present at Mueller’s February 2007 news conference – John Jackson of the NAACP, who now works for a private firm, and Richard Cohen, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center – have come to question the government’s motives.
“I’ve been disappointed that more cases have not been brought,” Cohen said. “I worried that too many people would get their hopes up. I don’t want to be part of a show.”
Some of the killings occurred up to 60 years ago. Evidence was sometimes destroyed to prevent further investigating. Some crime-scene samples – clothing, hair strands, blood stains – were lost. Memories have faded, and witnesses have died. Of those still alive, some are afraid to come forward even now. Others are ashamed, unwilling to bear witness against relatives who did the Ku Klux Klan’s bidding.
Yet some killers have been convicted – before the FBI’s new initiative was announced. Those successes were due in large part to the relentless efforts of survivors, journalists and prosecutors, and to the declassification of secret documents from the segregationist Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an agency that spied on blacks and civil rights workers and was connected to racial killings. Commission records were finally released in 1998 after a 21-year legal battle.
Since 1989, state and federal authorities have made about 29 arrests, leading to 23 convictions, according to civil rights organizations and others. Those cases include:
– Byron De La Beckwith’s conviction in 1994 of murdering Medgar Evers, the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, shot to death on his doorstep some three decades earlier.
– Edgar Ray Killen’s 2005 conviction on three counts of manslaughter for orchestrating the killings of civil-rights workers. The deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – kidnapped and shot to death by Klan members – were the basis of the 1989 film “Mississippi Burning.”
But for each conviction there are many killings that have never been prosecuted or even fully investigated.
Nineteen years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group based in Montgomery, Ala., began compiling a list of those unsolved killings. It is called “The Forgotten,” and contains more than 70 names dating to the 1940s. Center researchers created case files for each. Some contain a wealth of public records and statements. Some hold a single story clipped from a Northern newspaper.
It was from those files, as well as materials submitted by the NAACP and others, that the FBI’s Cold Case Initiative found 95 cases to review.
“We cannot turn back the clock. We cannot right these wrongs. But we can try to bring a measure of justice to those who remain,” Mueller said last year, joined by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Gonzales, seven months away from resigning under fire, also pledged to chase justice. “We hope we can bring closure to some of these cases,” he said.
Mueller promised the cases would be sent to FBI field offices for review. Months later, he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that 26 cases had been forwarded to the Justice Department for prosecutorial analyses.
They’ve been there for more than a year.
A bill in Congress that would have allocated $10 million annually to pursue cold civil rights cases – the so-called Till Bill, named for Emmett Till, a murdered black teenager – passed the House overwhelmingly but failed in the Senate. For two years it was blocked by a maneuver called a “hold,” initiated by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. He argued the government should not give money to new programs until it figures out what to do about chaotic fuel prices. Supporters hope Congress will revive the funding measure.
Meanwhile, the cold case initiative remains under FBI’s civil rights division, with no independent budget.
The FBI will reveal little about the initiative. Some civil rights leaders wonder whether it was more than an effort to cast the embattled Gonzales in a more favorable light.
“I’ve always wondered about the timing,” said Jackson, who was then chief policy officer for the NAACP. “There was a lot going on with the attorney general at the time,” he said, referring to Congress members’ demands that Gonzales resign amid criticism of government surveillance programs and alleged political motivations in the firing of several federal prosecutors.
“We wanted to know, after we turned over the cases, what was the next step?” Jackson said. “A lot of (FBI) staffers didn’t know how it worked.”
Southern Poverty Law Center director Cohen says he has heard little since the news conference, where he was surprised to hear the word “partnership.”
“We’d never discussed that,” he said. “I certainly don’t see myself as their ‘partner.'”
Has the initiative done nothing? In an interview at FBI headquarters, civil rights division chief Carlton Peeples replied: “I would say that’s probably untrue. We’re not going to get anywhere with these cases if people don’t come forward.”
Still, he would not say which cases are being reviewed and said he does not know how many agents are working on them. He also would not discuss details concerning some cases recently reopened and closed, including the notorious killing of Till in 1955.
Visiting his great uncle in Money, Miss., the 14-year-old Chicago boy made remarks deemed suggestive to a white woman behind the counter of a local market. When she went outside to get a gun from her car, he wolf-whistled.
The next day, he was dragged from his bed at 2:30 a.m. by at least two white men. Till’s bloated body was found snagged in the undergrowth of the Tallahatchie River. He had been beaten and shot. Barbed wire circled his neck, tied to a 70-pound fan from a cotton gin.
Two half brothers, one of them the woman’s husband, were tried for murder. An all-white jury took 68 minutes to find them not guilty. Years later, the men, now dead, confessed to Look magazine, saying they had killed the boy after he refused to apologize.
The case was reopened in 2004 – after the release of “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” a documentary film by Keith Beauchamp that included interviews with people who’d never publicly spoken about the killing.
A new FBI investigation produced a 464-page investigative report, but the FBI concluded it had no federal jurisdiction and forwarded the case to Mississippi prosecutors. Last year, a Leflore County grand jury declined to issue indictments, citing insufficient evidence.
At trial, Till’s great uncle testified he heard what could have been a woman’s voice saying, “That’s him,” after the boy was dragged from his house. Carolyn Bryant, the woman Till whistled at, has long denied being in the car that night.
Beauchamp, who’s based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is proud to call himself a partner of the FBI. He said the agency gave him a list of the top five cases reviewed under the cold case initiative.
“I’m helping them shake the trees,” he said, by producing documentaries on those killings.
Beauchamp’s re-enactments of the five cases will be the focus of a television series called “Murder in Black and White,” scheduled to run in October on cable channel TV One.
An 800 number will be shown – creating a kind of “America’s Most Wanted” tip line for racial killings.
The unsolved cases Beauchamp has dramatized:
– Lamar Smith, a 63-year-old World War II veteran, was shot to death in 1955 on a crowded Mississippi courthouse lawn in broad daylight. He had argued with a white man over registering blacks to vote. No witnesses ever came forward.
– The Rev. George Lee, a Baptist minister who urged his Belzoni, Miss. parishioners to register to vote, was killed in 1955 by a shotgun blast fired at his car. The death was never prosecuted. After Lee was sprayed with buckshot, his car crashed into the porch of a woman’s house. Initially, she told police she’d seen the shooter but later said she’d seen nothing.
– Willie Edwards Jr., 25, a truck driver, was abducted by Klansmen in Montgomery County, Ala., and ordered to jump off a bridge or face being shot. He jumped, and drowned. In 1976, one man confessed and three others were charged with murder. The charges were dismissed after a judge ruled that forcing someone to jump doesn’t necessarily result in death. The confessor, Raymond Britt, the only surviving participant, received immunity in exchange for his testimony.
– Sharecroppers George and Mae Murray Dorsey and Roger and Dorothy Malcom, were lynched at the Moore’s Ford Bridge outside Atlanta in 1946. The couples were returning from jail, where Roger Malcom had been held for allegedly stabbing a white man in a fight. A local white landowner had given them a ride to post Malcom’s bail. Afterward, he drove all four to the bridge, where a white mob opened fire with shotguns, rifles and a machine gun. FBI agents dispatched by President Truman could find no witnesses. Dorothy Malcom was allegedly seven months’ pregnant. The case was reopened eight years ago. A Georgia civil rights leader has said at least five suspects are still alive.
– Johnnie Mae Chappell, a black mother of 10, was shot to death in 1964 by the side of a Florida highway, where she was looking for her lost wallet. Four young white men were charged with her murder. They confessed to prowling Chappell’s community, looking to “get” a black person as race riots raged in nearby Jacksonville. Charges were dropped against three after they recanted. The fourth, J.W. Rich, served three years for manslaughter after telling an all-white jury that he hadn’t meant to shoot the woman. All four are still alive.
The Jacksonville detective who solved the killing, a white man named Lee Cody, has for years said the case was buried by a racist chief of detectives, now dead, who was part of the Klan.
Shelton Chappell, who was 4 months old when his mother died, has for years begged the FBI, with Cody’s help. After rejecting his pleas for years, the FBI met with Chappell in 2006 as part of the new cold case initiative, he said.
He told them everything he knew, a long and complicated story he has repeated over and over to state, local and federal authorities.
His mother knew nothing about civil rights demonstrations. She rode a bus 30 miles each way to clean the houses of white women. She had gone to get ice cream from the corner store, then realized, as she walked along darkened U.S. 1, that she’d somehow dropped her wallet.
There were headlight beams, then gunfire from a passing car, and then she was kneeling in the grass, shot in the stomach. She bled to death. Her 10 children were scattered in separate foster homes because her widower, who worked two jobs to support his family, wasn’t deemed fit by local welfare authorities to raise the children on his own.
Many didn’t see each other for years.
Chappell’s children think the FBI should use the old confessions, and the testimony of Cody, to reopen the case. Shelton Chappell says the government could have federal jurisdiction because his mother was walking along a national highway when she was shot.
But he has not heard a word since that 2006 meeting in Atlanta, and doesn’t have much hope that he will.
“It’s a dog and pony show,” he says. “Nothing has happened. I don’t see any movement. I don’t know what they’re waiting on. Are they waiting on everybody to die? What else do you need?”
FBI unit chief Nancy Nelson, who is Peeples’ boss and oversees the public corruption and civil rights operations, insists her office is “passionate about these cases” and will continue looking at them.