Deborah Hastings, AP, September 6, 2008
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.
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.
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:
o 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.
o 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.
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.
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.’”