With little fanfare, the FBI announced in an article in the Washington Post last week that it was closing its investigations into all but a handful of unsolved civil rights era murders. The head of the FBI team assigned to investigate these cold cases stated that "there's maybe five to seven cases where we don't know who did it. For every other case, we got it."
This announcement came as a surprise to activists who have pushed the FBI and the Justice Department to re-open and fully investigate many of these cases. It is also a blow to the families of murdered blacks from that era, who have been the primary force pushing federal law enforcement officials to fully investigate and unearth the truth of what happened to their loved ones.
It was the persistence of these families that resulted in the re-opened and successful prosecution of Byron de la Beckwith, the man who killed Mississippi voting rights activist Medgar Evers; the prosecution of Bobby Frank Cherry, responsible for the killing of the four girls in a Birmingham church bombing in 1963, and the recent conviction of James Ford Seale, a Klan member who killed 19-year-old students Henry Dee and Charles Moore. Dee's and Moore's body were found by Navy Seal divers in the Mississippi River during the frantic search for the three missing Freedom Summer workers, Michael Goodman, James Chaney and James Schwerner. The bodies of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were later found in an earthen dam in Philadelphia, Miss. Edgar Killen was convicted for his participation in the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner in 2005.
One of those families waiting for answers about their loved one is the family of Joseph Edwards. He disappeared in Vidalia, La., in the summer of 1964. A noose and blood was found in his car. Federal authorities insisted that they had no knowledge of Edwards or an investigation of his murder. But students working in the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University Law School discovered FBI documents labeled "Joseph Edwards Murder," when they combed through files at the National Archives last summer. According to Professor Paula Johnson, who co-directs the Syracuse initiative, the FBI reports pointed to members of a white supremacist group called the Silver Dollar as possible suspects in the Edwards murder. Another who has pushed for justice is Wharlest Jackson Jr., whose father—an NAACP official in Natchez, Miss.—was killed in 1967 when a bomb exploded under his car. His young son heard the explosion and furiously rode his bike toward the sound, only to discover his father's mutilated body. The killers of Wharlest Jackson Sr. were never found.
Most of the murders of black activists and community leaders in the South during this period were marked by cursory local criminal investigations. FBI investigations, in the few instances when they occurred, were also problematic. At stake for the families and the communities where these events occurred is not just the possibility of prosecuting the perpetrators. Even if perpetrators cannot be found or have died, the full story of how or whether law enforcement—local and federal—conducted an investigation, the names of the individuals who may have hindered an investigation, and the identities of those who were even suspected of involvement in these crimes, are facts the communities deserve to know as well.
What's even more surprising about the FBI's announcement is that it comes only two years after the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Crimes Act, a piece of legislation long advocated by the family of Emmett Till—a 14-year-old Chicago boy killed in the South in 1955—and by civil rights activists, and finally passed with bipartisan support in 2008. The "Till Bill" as it's called, was co-sponsored by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and provides $10 million a year to the Justice Department to assist in the re-investigation of cold cases from the civil rights era. The criminal section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has supervisory authority over the allocation of funds and over the FBI's investigative efforts. The act anticipates funding for the unit until 2017. Just last year, it was estimated that the FBI was looking into hundreds of these cases.
But it's Perez's civil rights division that is in charge of Till Bill investigations. If the Justice Department and the FBI have changed course, Perez and his team should come before Congress and fully explain the status of their work, and why they seem to have so abruptly reversed course. We owe it, not just to families of the victims, but to our country, to demonstrate that—in the words used to name a recent panel discussion about these cases at Syracuse Law School—"it's never too late for justice."
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.