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The Muckraker

The enduring ambition of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project

 
This article originally ran in the Fall 2011 edition of Nieman Reports.

Soon after I arrived at the Center for Investigative Reporting in January 2008, I spoke with reporter John Fleming of The Anniston (Ala.) Star. He was looking for help investigating a cold murder case from the civil rights era. Within weeks I learned of other journalists in the South and elsewhere who were working on similar cases. Two of them, Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi and Canadian documentary filmmaker David Ridgen, had done acclaimed work that helped bring killers to justice and some small measure of peace to the families of the victims.

In the early spring of 2008 I traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to talk about collaboration and the funding of cold case reporting with Mitchell; Ridgen; Fleming; Stanley Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel, a weekly paper in Ferriday, Louisiana; and Aynsley Vogel of the Vancouver-based Paperny Films. Our unifying motivation was storytelling, justice and even reconciliation. I wanted to create a project of an ambitious sweep that would tell the untold stories of killers, victims and their families in ways that would tie together a shameful chapter in American history and link it in powerful arcs to today. What I didn't know going in was how inspired I'd feel by hearing these journalists share fragments from their work that spoke to why telling these stories mattered to them—and should matter to all of us.

Nelson was born in Ferriday and raised in a neighboring parish, across the Mississippi River from Natchez. It is Deep South, as Nelson is Deep South. He delivered serious words in a heavy drawl with a measured resonant cadence. I respected and understood his role as the hard-working editor of a newspaper that was central to his community. We came from different worlds but shared the love of story and a core belief that journalists in our democracy have a responsibility to be a catalyst for justice and accountability.

In 2007 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) put out a list of about 100 unsolved civil rights era cold case killings, the oldest dating to 1946. Nelson was stunned to learn that a man named Frank Morris had been burned to death in Ferriday in 1964. "I was 9 years old [when Morris was killed] and I never knew about it," he told me. After the Sentinel published his initial story about the case, people in Ferriday complained to the paper about dredging up the past. Let it lie, they said.

One day Nelson was in his office when a black man he had known for most of his life came to see him. He recounted the visit for us, telling us what he'd been told that day. The man said that his three sisters had drowned on the day before Thanksgiving in 1968. He was told that the girls had been fishing on a local pond when their boat capsized. In telling the story to Nelson, he let him know that it had been a cold rainy day, and his sisters had never been fishing before. Nor did they did know how to swim. All three girls were missing clothing.

Nelson was stunned. Though he had known this man for many years, until that day he did not know that the man had had sisters. "Then the man said, 'Stanley, the killers are still walking among us.' "

As Nelson said this, a chill ran down my spine. His words clearly affected the others, too. By the time we left Jackson we had decided to act as a team to go after unsolved killings from decades ago that still reverberate through the South. Our resolve ushered in the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, coordinated by CIR and Paperny Films. But when I started (with the help of others) to raise funds for the project, foundation philanthropy was in retreat along with the global economy. From the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, we secured early organizational funding, and from the Open Society Institute we received funding to help build a website. The project also received developmental funding from the Corporation from Public Broadcasting and public television station WNET.

The potential collaboration we sought would have included WNET, NPR, the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University, MediaStorm, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University, as well as Howard University and other historically black colleges. We wanted a well-coordinated, multiplatform, long-term investigative project to tackle the FBI's known cold cases and discover others. To direct our efforts, Hank Klibanoff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and coauthor of "The Race Beat," came on as managing editor.

We had reporters and cases along with the will and skill to do something special. What we still don't have is the funding for us to act on our ambition. A smaller, more limited version of the project survives. With the help of Klibanoff and others, including the Syracuse University project, Nelson has kept on the Morris case, as the other team members pursue cases when time and resources permit. CIR helps financially when it can, but the project's outlays have not come close to compensating reporters for the time they've spent digging into these cases. In four years Nelson has written more than 150 stories about the Morris case; it's my belief that his work has been a catalyst for the convening of a grand jury in Concordia Parish. Its work on the case is unfinished.

Frustration surfaces when I encounter an absence of interest from potential funders. Perhaps to them these cases happened then and lack relevance to their stated goals today. Then there is the issue of the time I can devote to this effort since my role in building and sustaining CIR is a relentless challenge. Yet the editor and reporter in me appreciate the value these stories hold and recognize the time to investigate them is closing. Knowledge of the past is crucial, yet family survivors are aging, memories are fading, and witnesses and suspects are dying. In many of these cold cases, FBI files have not been made public and their information would doubtless bring us closer to the truth of what happened.

Nelson's work speaks for itself. With a newsroom staff of three, his weekly community newspaper reaches 5,000 readers. This spring his stories about the Morris case made him a Pulitzer finalist. His reporting is a beacon of what's possible. As Klibanoff reminds us: "Every unsolved Southern civil rights era murder that has been opened or reopened and prosecuted or reprosecuted in the last 20 years has been because of a journalist."

And Nelson has not forgotten the man's three sisters.

 

Nelson Honored as 2011 Pulitzer Prize Finalist

Stanley Nelson, a reporter for The Center for Investigative Reporting's Civil Rights Cold Case Project, has been honored as a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for work on a decades-old killing.

Nelson, an editor at The Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday-Vidalia, La., was selected by Pulitzer judges in the Local Reporting category due to "his courageous and determined efforts to unravel a long forgotten Ku Klux Klan murder during the Civil Rights era."

Earlier this year, Nelson was chosen as a winner of the University of Oregon's Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism and as the inaugural recipient of the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication’s Courage and Justice Award.

AUDIO: Concordia Sentinel reporter speaks on air about Frank Morris

Concordia Sentinel veteran reporter Stanley Nelson talks with The Jim Engster Show about the 1964 murder of Frank Morris and other racially-motivated cold-case crimes in Louisiana.

Download the MP3 audio here (the interview begins at 10:51).

 

FBI investigating former Alabama trooper for another killing

The FBI continues to investigate former Alabama trooper James Bonard Fowler for yet another killing, the Montgomery Advertiser is reporting.

READ FULL STORY | JERRY MITCHELL'S BLOG | COLD CASES

Former Alabama trooper pleads guilty in 1965 killing

Former state trooper James Bonard Fowler pleaded guilty today (Monday, Nov. 15) to manslaughter in the 1965 killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Fowler, 77, who pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter charges, will serve six months in prison under the plea deal.

Fowler had admitted to John Fleming, editor at large for The Anniston Star, that he had shot Jackson, involved in a civil rights protest, up to three times, but said he fired in self-defense.

The guilty plea is the 24th conviction since the unpunished cases from the civil rights era began to be reopened again more than two decades ago.

Jackson’s killing inspired the now famous Selma to Montgomery march that led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

This originally appeared on Jerry Mitchell's blog "Journey to Justice."

Federal initiative fails to warm cold cases

Reporter Ben Greenberg talks to the hosts of The Takeaway, a national online news program, about a 2007 federal initiative to investigate and solve "cold case" murders from the civil rights era, and why so few cases are being pursued.

Listen to the program:

WaPo: Journalists crucial to solving civil rights era cold cases



An opinion piece the Washington Post ran Sunday says the Justice Department is slow to prosecute what appear to be "racially motivated" murder cases from the 1950s and '60s.


I goes on to say that all the Justice Department's successful prosecutions on these types of cases have only come about because of investigative journalists' work, like that of the Center for Investigative Reporting's Cold Case Project.

CIR responds to FBI decision to close unsolved civil rights cases

Over the past 20 years, every unsolved civil rights murder case that has been reopened and successfully prosecuted in the South was the direct result of an investigation initiated by a journalist.

So the FBI’s decision to close, without prosecution or further disclosure, all but a few of the 108 unsolved murder cases it began re-examining three years ago, only highlights the vital need for investigative reporting that can find the truth, tell the stories and fill in the gaps in our nation’s history.

The Civil Rights Cold Case Project (www.coldcases.org), a team of investigative reporters, documentary filmmakers and interactive media producers, is digging into unsolved civil rights murders in the South. Led by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Paperny Films, the project -- which includes Clarion Ledger reporter and recent MacArthur Genius award winner Jerry Mitchell, and Pulitzer Prize winner Hank Klibanoff -- has been focused for more than two years on race murders and crimes primarily in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

“These cases are not cold when it comes to the relatives and friends of the victims,” said Robert J. Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting. “Our reporting has found that these cases resonate powerfully today. Too many Americans are unaware of the terror of that era and how it has affected our country in terms of race and reconciliation.”

In a Washington Post story, the FBI said that it was discontinuing its pursuit of all but a handful of the cases it believed had great potential for prosecution when the initiative was announced in 2007. Cynthia Deitle, head of the FBI’s civil rights unit, told the Post that agents and prosecutors concluded that almost a fifth of the cases were not racially motivated. In other cases, agents hit dead ends or dead perpetrators. It continues to investigate a few cases.

“While we welcomed FBI involvement in these cases,” said Hank Klibanoff, managing editor of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, “we always felt that our goals – deep reporting, story-telling and racial healing – had significance and value regardless of whether federal agents and prosecutors felt they could win a conviction. So while the FBI might pass on cases because the killers have died, we remain intensely interested because these stories are compelling and worth telling. There are family members of victims and perpetrators who deserve to know what happened, and there are history books and classrooms that are incomplete without this information.”

The Civil Rights Cold Case Project also urged the FBI to make all the files of the closed cases available to the public without redactions and without the long and difficult processes demanded by the federal Freedom of Information Act.

“There’s no reason now for this history to remain hidden,” Klibanoff said. “And there are compelling reasons for the records to be opened. A perpetrator of a racial murder should not be given special protection from disclosure and scrutiny simply because he had the misfortune of dying before he could be prosecuted.”

The Project also urged Congress to pass legislation that would ease public access to government-held records from the modern civil rights era. Working with Northeastern University Law Professor Margaret Burnham and her Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, Klibanoff has helped develop ideas for legislation that would create an independent review board to examine all those government-held civil rights records and release as many as possible, as soon as possible. The Civil Rights Cold Case Project supports this effort.

Congress acted in a similar manner twice before, both in the 1990s, when it created independent review boards to examine the John F. Kennedy Assassination Papers and the Nazi/Japanese War Crimes Papers; in both cases, Congress declared that the federal Freedom of Information Act had fallen short of its purpose – a situation the Civil Rights Cold Case Project believe exists today with civil rights records.

Sen. John Kerry recently introduced legislation that would create such a board to examine and release papers related to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Kerry’s office has said the senator would favor broadening the bill to include records of all civil rights murders.

The Project’s aim is to secure adequate funding to bring on additional reporters to join the existing team and produce ongoing reporting for newspapers and websites; a series of short and long-form documentaries for public television, in partnership with WNET.org in New York; reporting for National Public Radio; and a groundbreaking website and educational outreach effort that would engage victims’ families and communities in the investigative process.

Klibanoff noted that at least two of the handful of cases the FBI is still pursuing were prompted by Civil Rights Cold Case Project reporters.

Reporting by John Fleming of The Anniston Star led to federal criminal charges against a former Alabama state trooper for the 1965 shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Marion, Alabama, an act that helped trigger the historic Selma to Montgomery March. The trooper awaits trial.

In Ferriday, Louisiana, weekly newspaper editor Stanley Nelson’s extraordinary reporting on the 1964 murder of black shopkeeper Frank Morris led to a current FBI and local investigation, the posting of a reward and the possibility a grand jury will be empanelled. Nelson, working with thousands of pages of government documents that took nearly two years to obtain and aided by the children of former Klansmen, also has revealed important new information about a violent Klan offshoot, the Silver Dollar group, and its involvement in two other murders: Wharlest Jackson in 1967 and Joe Ed Edwards in 1964. Significant work has been done on those cases by two allies of the cold case project, law professors Paula C. Johnson and Janis L. McDonald, who run the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University.

Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi has been responsible since the late 1980s for prosecutions and convictions in some of the nation’s highest profile civil rights cases, including the assassination of Medgar Evers, the Birmingham church bombing, and the “Mississippi Burning” murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman in Philadelphia, MS. Mitchell continues to find stories in the 40,000 pages of “Mississippi Burning” documents.

Two other team members, Canadian filmmaker David Ridgen and Thomas Moore, the brother of a young black man abducted and murdered in Meadville, Mississippi, produced documentary reporting that led to the federal prosecution and conviction of a Klansman for the murder – and a public apology by another Klansman.

Project reporter Ben Greenberg continues to break new ground on the 1964 murder of Clifton Walker, who was driving home from work in Woodville, Mississippi, when he was shot multiple times on a lonely road. Greenberg has found witnesses who were long ago believed to have died or disappeared.

“Investigative reporting takes enormous time and resources, and it’s even more challenging at a time when reporters are being called on to help their newsrooms by covering an ever-changing array of topics and stories,” Klibanoff said. “It is our hope that we can attract the resources to free up those reporters and many others who want to join us as we dig out and tell these hidden stories from our difficult past.”

Investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell breaking ground in Civil Rights-era cold cases

Today in the American South, scores of civil rights murders remain unsolved, uninvestigated, unprosecuted, and untold. Those two legacies of violence and silence still haunt the region and continue to damage race relations in the United States.

Investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell has been re-opening many of these "cold cases" while reporting at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. His work has resulted in convictions in four cases, and has revealed evidence in several others. Last month, Mitchell was awarded the MacArthur Foundation's "Genius Grant"—a $500,000 award. He talks about his work in an article published today by Editor & Publisher: "Aiding Justice in Civil Rights-era Murder Cases."

Mitchell is joined by several other reporters doing similar investigations on unsolved Civil Rights-era murder cases in a collaborative project that will launch next month by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Paperny Films, and WNET in New York. Stay tuned.