By Hank Klibanoff
Attorney General Eric Holder is circulating in Congress his second report on the Justice Department's efforts to solve 109 murder cases in the South during the 1950s and '60s that appear to have been racially motivated. What began as a Justice Department initiative in 2006 to investigate cold cases became a mandate when the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act became law in 2008.
"We believe that we have made great progress this year," the report concludes. The department prosecuted two cases, both holdovers from before the initiative, and closed 54 without prosecution.
The report doesn't address the 53 other cases but devotes many of its 12 pages to throat clearing, describing the processes Justice has undertaken to get ready to organize, to prepare, to gear up and to gather the information it would need to investigate cases it should have resolved over the past 50 years.
Fifteen times in 12 pages the report touts Justice and FBI "outreach" and "reaching out" to black establishment organizations and at university and government conferences — as though that is where cases against Ku Klux Klansmen are going to be cracked. In short, the report is a view from where Justice and the FBI seem to be sitting: the sidelines.
The Justice Department has a good track record of putting Klan terrorists behind bars when they get into court. But it has had trouble turning long-standing pleas and evidence from victims' families, as well as the hundreds of thousands of civil rights cold-case records in its files, into active investigations, witness and evidence development, and courtroom showdowns.
Every case that Justice has successfully prosecuted has been the result of work by investigative reporters. The killers of Medgar Evers; the four little girls in the Birmingham church; Vernon Dahmer; Ben Chester White; and Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman would not have been prosecuted and convicted without the discoveries made by reporter Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.