Skip to content
A last push for justice in civil rights-era killings
The two events each seem to hold new promise of unmasking old ghosts.
In Chicago, the FBI exhumed the body of Emmett Till last month in a search for clues about the 14-year-old black youth's brutal 1955 beating death. In Mississippi, reputed Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen stands trial this week in the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers.
Those cases -- among the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era -- effectively mark the close of a nearly two-decade push to attain justice for racial violence of the past. The sad docket of well-known killings has gradually dwindled, and suspects have grown old and died.
"We're beginning to see the end of this series and, certainly, the Killen case and the Till case are probably the most prominent of the ones that are still out there," said G. Douglas Jones, a former federal prosecutor in Alabama who brought charges more than 30 years after four black girls were killed in a 1963 Birmingham church bombing. "With old and cold cases, there comes the problem of old and missing evidence, and old and dying witnesses."
In resurrecting the unsolved murders of the Jim Crow South, there are other steep hurdles as well, say attorneys and scholars who have worked on and studied the decades-old crimes. While some of the killings drew the nation's horrified attention and the extra investigative efforts of federal authorities, many others received little notice and little police interest at the time -- which makes reviving them now nearly impossible.
It is a grim fact demonstrated even in the high-profile case against Killen, now 80. When civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20, disappeared in July 1964, authorities dragging the Mississippi River in search of the three men found instead the mutilated corpses of two other young men.
The two were identified as Charles Moore, 20, and Henry Dee, 19, and two members of one of the South's most violent Klan organizations, the Mississippi White Knights, were charged with the killings. But a local justice of the peace dismissed the charges soon after, according to a history of the case compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and efforts in recent years to revive the case flagged.
'End of the era'
By the count of the Montgomery, Ala.-based center, state or federal officials in seven states have re-examined 29 civil rights-era killings since 1989. The probes have resulted in 27 arrests, 21 convictions, two acquittals and one mistrial, said Mark Potok, director of the center's Intelligence Project, who added that those numbers account for a fraction of the violence of the 1950s and 1960s.
"If you were poor and black and disappeared one day, the white-owned newspaper probably didn't write a story about it," Potok said last week. "My sense is, we are really coming to the end of the era."
The push to find justice in the old civil rights killings began in the late 1980s, when authorities in Mississippi reopened the 1963 murder case of NAACP leader Medgar Evers. They won a conviction against Byron de la Beckwith in 1994. The state prosecuted former Klan leader Samuel Bowers four years later in the 1966 firebombing death of another NAACP activist, Vernon Dahmer.
In Alabama, prosecutors won convictions in 2001 and 2002 against Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton Jr. in the Birmingham church bombings.
If it does become the last of the Southern trials, the case against Killen could live up to its billing. Reputed to be a one-time Klan leader and the instigator who led a group of men to hunt down and kill the young civil rights workers, Killen, a part-time preacher and sawmill operator, was one of 18 men tried in 1967 on federal charges of violating the men's civil rights.
Killen was acquitted back then after the all-white jury deadlocked, with one holdout saying she couldn't convict a preacher. Seven of the men were convicted on federal civil rights charges and sent to prison, but no one faced state murder charges until now.
Jury selection is scheduled to start today in the courthouse in Philadelphia, Miss., a small town of about 7,300 that has long been haunted by the stain of the notorious case that was made famous for a younger generation by the 1988 film Mississippi Burning.
Despite all the public attention, the case has come to trial now because of a unique set of pressures and documents, said Howard Ball, a professor at Vermont Law School and the author of Murder in Mississippi, which examined the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed the original civil rights trial to go forward.
He said the case was spurred by an extensive FBI file, the transcripts of the earlier federal trials, aggressive reporting by a Mississippi newspaper, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, and the advocacy of a group of residents known as the Philadelphia Coalition.
For many others in the community, though, there remains a sense of "we've relived the past enough -- enough is enough," said Ball, who formerly taught at Mississippi State University. "There is a tension in Mississippi over whether to have the trial in the first place."
"God knows I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone say, 'We should leave it in the past,'" said Susan M. Glisson, director of the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, who said trials such as Killen's have been "necessary public rituals of atonement that the state needs to go through."
Many white residents still bristle at the negative attention the case has brought the state, Glisson said. Among blacks, there has long been an uneasy sense that if only James Chaney had disappeared in July 1964 -- the only one of the three men who was black -- the case never would have received the attention that it has.
For Mississippi, the Killen case might not be the last chapter. The state also carries the dark legacy of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was visiting relatives in the small town of Money, Miss., in August 1955 when he was kidnapped, beaten and shot after he purportedly whistled at a white woman.
Two men, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were tried for the killing that year and were quickly acquitted by an all-white jury. Both are now dead, but the Justice Department about a year ago said it was reopening the investigation of the case to pursue whether any others involved in Till's death could be prosecuted.
As part of that investigation, the FBI exhumed Till's body from a grave in suburban Chicago almost two weeks ago to conduct an autopsy, something not done in 1955. In a small, solemn ceremony last Sunday, surviving relatives reburied the boy's remains.
'Dealing with mortality'
The investigation of Till's death has been aided by the work of two documentary filmmakers, as well as by his mother's efforts immediately after his killing. Refusing to let his death go unnoticed, Mamie Till Mobley insisted that her son's coffin be open during his funeral and invited news photographers to show the country his mutilated body.
Like so many others in the case, Mobley died two years ago, at age 81.
"You are dealing with mortality," Howard Ball said. "These are events that took place 40 and 50 years ago."
Still, there are efforts to revisit those events, even in cases that barely drew notice decades ago.
In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush asked the state Department of Law Enforcement in April to review the murder case of Johnnie Mae Chappell, a domestic worker who was fatally shot in 1964 as she walked to her home in Jacksonville. Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist also has reopened the 1951 killings of civil rights activist Harry Moore and his wife, Harriette, who died when a bomb exploded in their home on Christmas night.
In Georgia, some politicians and family members are pushing local prosecutors to seek indictments in the 1946 deaths of four black sharecroppers who were pulled from a car in Monroe, Ga., and fatally shot by an angry white mob.
"I hope people don't quit looking at those cases," said Jones, the former Alabama prosecutor, who says people still stop him on the street to thank him for bringing charges in the church bombing case. But the challenges, he said, "are pretty enormous. A lot of these things just did not get investigated appropriately, and to start from scratch on a cold case is just very, very difficult."