Sunday, March 17, 2013

Civil Rights-Era Cold Cases: "Trying to Make a Show"

A front-page story in today's New York Times on the FBI's investigation of civil rights-era cold cases pursuant to the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act (2007) caught my attention.  The story, "When Cold Cases Stay Cold," notes that, with great fanfare, the FBI opened or reopened investigations of murders  committed in the Jim Crow-era South after Congress passed the Till Act.  Since that time the bureau closed many cases after conducting investigations that some victims' families view as perfunctory--or just for "show."  To the extent that new leads have turned up in these cases, it turns out, investigative journalists and cold cases projects located at schools of journalism or law have uncovered them. The key to discovering evidence that can move investigations forward after all of these years is knowing and building relationships with local people--folks who tend to mistrust government officials, including the FBI, and for very good reason.  Bravo to these journalists and lawyers!

Historians also have made important contributions to cold cases, including in the notorious--and still unsolved--case of a mass lynching of four blacks.  The lynching, which occurred in Walton County, Georgia in 1946, is thought to have been committed by twelve to twenty perpetrators. One of the victims of the lynchings was a woman, seven months pregnant; one was a veteran of World War II who had recently returned from the war front; and all the victims had worked as sharecroppers on local farms. Some of the perpetrators of this crime are thought to be alive, residents of Walton County, Georgia.  In 2010, Tim Crimmins, a historian at Georgia State University, found more than thirty photographs taken shortly after the mass murders. Georgia State posted the photographs here and asks anyone with information about the lynchings to make contact.  For more on the crime, see Laura Wexler's fine book, Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America (2003), and news stories by the Washington Post and NBC news. As the Post notes, Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge is suspected to have authorized the mass lynching "to sway rural white voters during a tough election campaign."

Eugene Talmadge
New Georgia Encyclopedia, Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Justice should be done in the brutal Walton County murder and in every other Jim Crow-era cold case.  When I refer to doing "justice," I have in mind the processes of criminal justice--thorough investigations, prosecutions and convictions where evidence permits. Reopening the cases just for "show" only makes matters worse, in my view.  Why raise families' hopes only to dash them with meager investigations? Not everyone agrees, however, that Till Act efforts should be measured by the quality of law enforcement's investigations. Margaret Burnham of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Program at Northeastern Law School, quoted in the Times's story, remarks, for example: "Setting aside whether the FBI could have done more, I respect the dignity with which they [FBI] are accepting responsibility for letting families know how justice failed them." The Northeastern program does outstanding work, including in some of these cold cases. However, the FBI's willingness to inform victims of much that they already know does not seem quite that impressive to me. After all, some surviving family members have  resigned themselves to what I can only call "divine" justice because the criminal justice system failed them so miserably years ago and once again has failed them during the more recent investigations. The Times notes, for example, that Grace Miller, the widow of a black farmer fatally shot in the back in 1965 by a white man whom an overwhelmingly white grand jury then refused to indict, has placed "judgment" of the perpetrators in "God's hands."

It seems to me that, whatever judgment the Divine One may render to perpetrators (and I hope she throws the book at them), victims of civil rights-era crimes deserve thorough investigations of all leads by law enforcement and convictions of suspects where possible--actions that can take place right here on Earth--in Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama and wherever else crimes occurred. I am convinced of this position partly because, as important as the underlying crimes are, this issue is larger that particular victims and perpetrators.

Law enforcement itself, together with local and state officials, often was complicit in the culture of lawlessness in which racially-motivated or racially-tinged murders occurred in the segregated South.  Law enforcement itself and state and local officials also were implicated in the inadequate investigations that followed these crimes. On this point, see, for example, Courage to Dissent, chapter 1, entitled "Aren't Going to Let a Nigger Practice in Our Courts," and John Dittmer's Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, among other works.  Hence, today, law enforcement does not merely seek justice for the victims of civil rights-era cold cases and for surviving family members. Law enforcement is charged with rectifying a broader harm. It should be understood as seeking to remedy acts of past discrimination committed by agents of government itself--incidents that resulted in tangible harms, that produced identifiable victims and that have had lasting, detrimental effects on states' relationships with citizens. Resolution of civil rights-era crimes is a vital component of the overall social transformation of American race relations.