Cold Case Justice Initiative hands over 196 new names of potential victims in civil rights era killings to Department of Justice
The Directors of the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) at SU recently hand-delivered to Justice Department officials a list of 196 additional names of suspicious civil rights era killings. The FBI has been working from a previous list of 122 different names, a list never meant to be a complete accounting of suspected atrocities.
“We cannot wait for the Justice Department to do their job,” says CCJI Co-Director and Professor Paula Johnson. “Over the last four years, anytime Janis or I are in a community we are contacted by relatives who believe they lost loved ones due to racial violence. We take their claims seriously and conduct our own investigation, and will continue to do so.”
The Emmett Till Act was named for a 14-year-old teenage boy tortured and brutally murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Sumner, Miss. The act requires the Justice Department and the FBI to devote intensive investigations during a 10-year period to address the unsolved Civil Rights Era homicides. However, no indictments have been obtained since the act became law in November 2008.
“Ever since Congress enacted the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Act of 2008 we have been asking the FBI and the Justice Department to undertake a thorough search of all of the suspicious deaths that occurred during this time frame,” says Professor Janis McDonald, the Initiatives other co-director. “There has never been a full accounting of all of the people who were killed as the result of Klan and other racial hatred and violence during the era.”
The co-directors of the CCJI lined up a team of nearly two dozen law student volunteers who headed to Georgia and Louisiana while others remained in Syracuse. Over the course of a year and a half, including an intensive summer of research in 2011, the canvassing effort has revealed startling figures both in scope and size. The CCJI has uncovered 196 suspicious deaths in 10 states including Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina, as well as the District of Columbia.
“Identifying suspicious cases is only the first step,” says McDonald. “They still need to be thoroughly investigated by authorities and some may not survive that initial investigation, but these families need to know people care enough to put in the time, resources and effort. They want and deserve answers.”
Seventy-five of the deaths in the new Cold Case Justice Initiative’s list involved police shootings under questionable circumstances. According to Johnson, “These law enforcement-related deaths need to be re-examined in light of policies and practices at the time. Many Klan organizations infiltrated law enforcement as a way to intimidate the black community and commit acts of violence with impunity.” The list contains multiple names of individuals who were shot in the back when police alleged they were running after what appeared to be minor burglaries. In one instance, the burglary involved five packs of cigarettes.
The Cold Case Justice Initiative began as an effort to assist the family of Frank Morris in Ferriday, La. Morris, the owner of one of the few African American-owned businesses in his town in 1964, suffered third-degree burns over 95 percent of his body when suspected members of a Klan organization set fire to his shop. Although he managed to rescue his 10-year-old grandson, Nathaniel, Morris died four days later. A joint effort by the Cold Case Justice Initiative and a local reporter, Stanley Nelson, of the Concordia Sentinel, led to the currently pending grand jury investigation in Concordia Parish, La., concerning his homicide. At least one living suspect, Leonard Spencer, has admitted to participating in the arson that led to Frank Morris’ death, according to his son, former wife and former brother-in-law. Despite this evidence of an admission by Spencer, the Justice Department has not yet announced an indictment in the case.
Suspected perpetrators, witnesses and family members who can provide critical evidence are dying off each year. Numerous other families who learned of the Cold Case Justice Initiative and its volunteer work have contacted the Initiative for assistance. CCJI has pledged its continued support for family members and will continue its collaborations with investigators and journalists who’ve committed themselves to searching for the truth in these senseless murders and cover-ups.