02/21/2007

SPLC Provides List of Unresolved Civil Rights Era Deaths to FBI

 

To assist with the FBI's review of unresolved civil rights era murders, the Center has provided the bureau's Civil Rights Unit with information about the deaths of dozens of people who may have been victims of racially motivated killings.

In a letter accompanying the files, Center President Richard Cohen asked the FBI to use its considerable investigatory resources to uncover more information about these cases.

"Those responsible for these forgotten deaths - those who may still be alive today, like James Ford Seale, who was recently arrested for the murders of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore - have gone unpunished too long," Cohen said.

The names were gathered from research originally done in the late 1980s as the Center planned the Civil Rights Memorial, the black granite monument designed by Maya Lin and dedicated by the Center in 1989. The names of 40 people who met certain criteria were inscribed on the Memorial's timeline. Dozens of others could not be included because there was not enough information known about the circumstances of their deaths.

"We suspect that some were killed by white supremacists to intimidate the black community or to thwart the Civil Rights Movement," Cohen said.

The list of 75 names sent to the FBI is alphabetical and includes the time and place of each death and a brief description of what happened.

Research conducted in connection with the Civil Rights Memorial has played a key role in the reopening of recent civil rights era murders, including the indictment of Seale. After the 40 martyrs were selected, the Center published a book, Free At Last, that tells their stories. The book was distributed in concert with the Memorial's dedication and was updated in 2004.

Earlier that year, Jerry Mitchell, a writer for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., attended a special press screening of the film Mississippi Burning, a fictionalized account of the three civil rights workers murdered in Neshoba County in 1964. Also at the screening were two FBI agents who had opened a Mississippi office during a search for the three workers. The film and his conversation with the agents afterwards piqued Mitchell's interest in unsolved civil rights murders and prompted his quest to bring unpunished killers to justice.

Since then, the investigative reporter has unearthed documents, cajoled suspects and witnesses and pursued evidence in the notorious killings from that era.

"The Memorial stands as a reminder that the martyrs' killers walked free, even though everyone knew they were guilty," Mitchell said. "After it was dedicated in 1989, it transformed into an instrument of justice."

Free At Last became Mitchell's guide. "The publication became a road map for me on my journey into reinvestigating these cases, starting with the 1963 assassination of Mississippi NAACP leader Medger Evers," he said.

The Memorial and the book helped ensure that the martyrs were never forgotten, Mitchell said. The Memorial is situated across the street from the Center's headquarters in Montgomery, Ala.

Mitchell's reporting resulted in the 1994 conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the Evers killing; the 1998 conviction of Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers for the death of Vernon Dahmer; the 2003 conviction of Ernest Avants for killing caretaker Ben Chester White; and the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for helping orchestrate the Neshoba County murders. His stories also contributed to the investigation that led to Seale's indictment.

"It has not been an easy journey," Mitchell said. "There were many people who wanted me to stop, including friends, family and fellow journalists."

Since 1989, authorities in seven states have re-examined 29 killings from the civil rights era and made 28 arrests - including Seale's - and obtained 22 convictions. Mitchell has won a number of prestigious awards for his reporting, including the 2005 John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism.

"For too long, people thought that nothing could be done about those who had literally gotten away with murder during the civil rights era," Cohen said. "But as we've seen in recent years, with the successful prosecutions of murderers like Edgar Ray Killen, Dr. King was right when he said that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. It's our hope that investigators will continue to prove the point."

Legislation that would give the Department of Justice and the FBI the ability to reopen civil rights era criminal cases that have gone cold was reintroduced in Congress on Feb. 8. The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act is named for the teenager who was murdered while on a summer vacation in Money, Miss., in 1955. Public outrage surrounding the case helped spur the modern-day Civil Rights Movement.

The proposed legislation, originally introduced last year, is co-sponsored by Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.).