University Students Investigate Jim Crow-Era Killings

Students at Atlanta’s Emory University are investigating Jim Crow-era murders of blacks in Georgia. They then publish their results online. This is the focus of Emory’s “The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project.” Similar projects exist at least three other universities. Important federal legislation and actions by the U.S. Department of Justice provide important background for such efforts. These subjects will be explored in this post.

Emory’s Project[1]

The Project was started in 2011 as an interdisciplinary Civil Rights Cold Cases class examining incidents that occurred in Georgia. In January 2015, it launched a website, coldcases.emory.edu, that is the joint product of more than fifty students’ work during seven semesters of the course.

The Emory class is taught by Hank Klibanoff, the James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, and by Brett Gadsden, Associate Professor of African American Studies.

Professor Gadsden said the class is run like “a research seminar, with intense focus on individuals’ lives and attention to the historical context in which these folks lived. These stories come alive for students. They aren’t just presenting cases or telling the stories of lowly black victims. They are really trying to understand what happened, what the circumstances were, what happened to the people, how they lived, how they died, who killed them, and why, but understanding these victims’ deaths as a part of the historical record.”

The students prepare both a ten-page academic paper on their topic of choice and a condensed article for publication on the website. Gadsden emphasizes that the students are “writing for the professors, for each other, and also for a public of both academics and non-academics. They are accountable to the descendants of the lost, and that comes with a special responsibility—one that the students embrace.”

The recent Wall Street Journal article about Emory’s project tells the moving story of the students’ investigation of the September 8, 1948, killing by two white men of Isaiah Nixon, a black man who had voted that same day in Georgia’s gubernatorial primary election. One of the white men was charged with murder, but was acquitted in a one-day trial by an all-white jury. Afterwards the accessory-to-murder charge against the other white man was dropped. The Emory students’ investigation led them to conclude that Nixon had been murdered because he had voted in that primary election.

The students also discovered Nixon’s grave in a Georgia cemetery and invited his daughter, Dorothy Nixon Williams, who at age 6 had witnessed the murder of her father, to visit the grave last week with them and her son. Now 73 years old, Dorothy said when seeing the grave, “Lord have mercy,” sobbing into her son’s shoulder. Professor Klibanoff commented, “Isaiah Nixon matters; his life matters and his death and disappearance from history matter. What matters more is his reappearance now and I think that is miraculous.” At the conclusion of the visit, Dorothy said her anger over her father’s murder “now is completely released.”

Other Similar Projects

Similar projects are being conducted by Northeastern University School of Law, Syracuse University College of Law and Louisiana State University.

Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project investigates “the role of state, local and federal law enforcement agencies and courts in protecting activists and their work. [The Project] examines the geo-politics that led to the large-scale breakdown of law enforcement, the wide-spread repression against the movement’s participants, and the reforms that have been initiated to rectify these abuses. The project engages teachers and students across the university and is directed by faculty from the School of Law and the College of Criminal Justice.” [2]

Syracuse’s Cold Case Justice Initiative was established in 2007 by Syracuse law professors Paula Johnson and Janis McDonald to investigate “racially motivated murders that occurred during the Civil Rights era and [to advocate] on behalf of the victims and their families to get justice for the crimes. The program works with law students to conduct research, identify victims and find new information that could assist law enforcement in resolving cases. The Initiative as of has identified [nearly 200] cases from the civil rights era they believe warranted further investigation by federal authorities.”[3]

Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication started its Cold Case Project in 2010 to investigate Civil Rights-era hate murders in Louisiana and southern Mississippi. Since then nearly three-dozen students, comprised mainly of seniors and graduate students, have worked on such cases. Their “primary focus is to bring closure to African-American communities which have lingered decades without fully knowing what federal agents learned about the deaths of family members and friends.” Jay Shelledy, who is in charge of the Project, said FBI agents at the time did their best to solve these vicious killings, but were thwarted by intimidated witnesses, Klan-sympathizing local lawmen and white juries which refused to convict whites of murdering blacks.[4]

In February 2015 the LSU Project launched a searchable website detailing heretofore sealed FBI investigative findings in a dozen such murders. It contains more than 150,000 pages of FBI findings, resulting stories, photographs and letters from the U.S. Department of Justice to the victims’ next of kin. Many thousands of additional pages of FBI case files are pending release under FOIA requests; when released, they will be added to the digital database.

Background for These Projects

These projects have been stimulated and assisted by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In 2006, the Department began its Cold Case Initiative—a comprehensive program to identify and investigate racially motivated murders committed decades ago. The effort was reinforced in 2008 with the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act that authorized the Department to investigate unsolved civil rights murders before 1970. This statute had been introduced in 2007 by Congressman John Lewis of Georgia and unanimously passed by both houses of Congress in 2008 and signed into law by President George W. Bush.[5]

As of May 2015, the Department reported to Congress that it had concluded 105 of 113 relevant cold cases involving 126 victims, but that “very few prosecutions have resulted from these exhaustive efforts.” (The single case that went to court involved Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot by Alabama State Trooper James Fowler after a civil rights protest in 1965. In 2010, at age 77, Fowler pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in prison.)[6]

This was due, said the report, for many reasons. Federal statutory law limits the Department’s ability to prosecute civil-rights era cases at the federal level. There is a five-year statute of limitations on federal criminal civil-rights charges that existed prior to 1994. The Fifth Amendment protects against double jeopardy, which prevents the re-trial of someone for an offense for which he or she was previously found not guilty. In addition, cold cases can be difficult to prosecute because “subjects die, witnesses die or can no longer be located, memories become clouded, evidence is destroyed or cannot be located.”

This statute is due to expire in 2017, and efforts are being made to lobby for its extension.

Conclusion

These projects are significant and inspiring. First, they complement and should be coordinated with the amazing justice advocacy of Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative that was discussed in a prior post. Second, these projects are excellent examples of a mode of teaching an important subject that should be included in this blogger’s reflections on modes of teaching and learning as set forth in another earlier post.

We all should give thanks to Emory, Northeastern, Syracuse and Louisiana State University for their leadership in this important work.

=======================================================

[1] McWhirter, College Class Investigates Jim Crow-Era Killings, W.S. J. (Jan. 24, 2016),; Lameiras, Cold Cases Project helps student uncover history of civil rights era crimes, Emory Mag. (May 25, 2015); Emory Libraries, Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases; Justice, Emory student research debuts on Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases website (Jan. 7, 2015); Emory Univ., Special Topics Seminar: Cold Cases (description of seminar and tentative list of readings).

[2] Northeastern Univ. School of Law, Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. An earlier version of this post erroneously included Northwestern University College of Law’s important Wrongful Conviction Center, and I thank Professor Hank Klibanoff for pointing out this error.

[3] Joiner, Inside the Effort to Solve Civil Rights Crimes Before It’s Too Late, Time (Oct. 15, 2015).

[4] LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, Cold Case Project; Lemoine, Cold Case, LSU Gold (Fall 2011); LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, Cold Case Project website released (Feb. 25, 2015).

[5] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Cold Case Initiative.

[6] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Attorney General’s Sixth Annual Report to Congress Pursuant to the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 (May 2015).

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

One thought on “University Students Investigate Jim Crow-Era Killings”

  1. Thank you for your post and support of the work of all of us engaged in this effort. You may add the following website to your footnotes or to pass on information to others http://www.syr.edu/coldcaselaw The Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse Univ College of Law in operation since 2007 has identified over 300 suspicious racist killings from the past civil rights era as well as many others that are not covered by the Emmett Till Act in c the 1970s, 80s and beyond. We continue to identify killings not on any FBI list. NOONE HAS DONE A FULL ACCOUNTING OF ALL OF THOSE WHO WERE KILLED OR DISAPPEARED BY RACIST KILLINGS AND THE DOJ HAS FAILED TO MAKE THIS ACCOUNTING.
    We also support families of those killed today in racist police shootings and other deaths. You can also follow us on twitter @coldcasejustice

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