“I’ve always wondered about the timing,” said Jackson, who was then chief policy officer for the NAACP. “There was a lot going on with the attorney general at the time,” he said, referring to Congress members’ demands that Gonzales resign amid criticism of government surveillance programs and alleged political motivations in the firing of several federal prosecutors.
“We wanted to know, after we turned over the cases, what was the next step?” Jackson said. “A lot of [FBI] staffers didn’t know how it worked.”
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.’”
Has the initiative done nothing? In an interview at FBI headquarters, civil rights division chief Carlton Peeples replied: “I would say that’s probably untrue. We’re not going to get anywhere with these cases if people don’t come forward.”
Still, he would not say which cases are being reviewed and said he does not know how many agents are working on them. He also would not discuss details concerning some cases recently reopened and closed, including the notorious killing of Till in 1955.
Visiting his great uncle in Money, Miss., the 14-year-old Chicago boy made remarks deemed suggestive to a white woman behind the counter of a local market. When she went outside to get a gun from her car, he wolf-whistled.
The next day, he was dragged from his bed at 2:30 a.m. by at least two white men. Till’s bloated body was found snagged in the undergrowth of the Tallahatchie River. He had been beaten and shot. Barbed wire circled his neck, tied to a 70-pound fan from a cotton gin.
Two half-brothers, one of them the woman’s husband, were tried for murder. An all-white jury took 68 minutes to find them not guilty. Years later, the men, now dead, confessed to Look magazine, saying they had killed the boy after he refused to apologize.
The case was reopened in 2004 after the release of “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” a documentary film by Keith Beauchamp that included interviews with people who’d never publicly spoken about the killing.
A new FBI investigation produced a 464-page investigative report, but the FBI concluded it had no federal jurisdiction and forwarded the case to Mississippi prosecutors. Last year, a Leflore County grand jury declined to issue indictments, citing insufficient evidence.
At trial, Till’s great uncle testified he heard what could have been a woman’s voice saying, “That’s him,” after the boy was dragged from his house. Carolyn Bryant, the woman Till whistled at, has long denied being in the car that night.
Beauchamp, who’s based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is proud to call himself a partner of the FBI. He said the agency gave him a list of the top five cases reviewed under the cold case initiative.
“I’m helping them shake the trees,” he said, by producing documentaries on those killings.
Beauchamp’s re-enactments of the five cases will be the focus of a television series called “Murder in Black and White,” scheduled to run in October on cable channel TV One.
An 800 number will be shown — creating a kind of “America’s Most Wanted” tip line for racial killings.
The unsolved cases Beauchamp has dramatized:
• Lamar Smith, a 63-year-old World War II veteran, was shot to death in 1955 on a crowded Mississippi courthouse lawn in broad daylight. He had argued with a white man over registering blacks to vote. No witnesses ever came forward.
• The Rev. George Lee, a Baptist minister who urged his Belzoni, Miss. parishioners to register to vote, was killed in 1955 by a shotgun blast fired at his car. The death was never prosecuted. After Lee was sprayed with buckshot, his car crashed into the porch of a woman’s house. Initially, she told police she’d seen the shooter but later said she’d seen nothing.
• Willie Edwards Jr., 25, a truck driver, was abducted by Klansmen in Montgomery County, Ala., and ordered to jump off a bridge or face being shot. He jumped, and drowned. In 1976, one man confessed and three others were charged with murder. The charges were dismissed after a judge ruled that forcing someone to jump doesn’t necessarily result in death. The confessor, Raymond Britt, the only surviving participant, received immunity in exchange for his testimony.
• Sharecroppers George and Mae Murray Dorsey and Roger and Dorothy Malcom were lynched at the Moore’s Ford Bridge outside Atlanta in 1946. The couples were returning from jail, where Roger Malcom had been held for allegedly stabbing a white man in a fight. A local white landowner had given them a ride to post Malcom’s bail. Afterward, he drove all four to the bridge, where a white mob opened fire with shotguns, rifles and a machine gun. FBI agents dispatched by President Harry S. Truman could find no witnesses. Dorothy Malcom was allegedly seven months pregnant. The case was reopened eight years ago. A Georgia civil rights leader has said at least five suspects are still alive.
• Johnnie Mae Chappell, a black mother of 10, was shot to death in 1964 by the side of a Florida highway, where she was looking for her lost wallet. Four young white men were charged with her murder. They confessed to prowling Chappell’s community, looking to “get” a black person as race riots raged in nearby Jacksonville. Charges were dropped against three after they recanted. The fourth, J.W. Rich, served three years for manslaughter after telling an all-white jury that he hadn’t meant to shoot the woman. All four are still alive.
The Jacksonville detective who solved the killing, a white man named Lee Cody, has for years said the case was buried by a racist chief of detectives, now dead, who was part of the Klan.
Shelton Chappell, who was 4 months old when his mother died, has for years begged the FBI, with Cody’s help. After rejecting his pleas for years, the FBI met with Chappell in 2006 as part of the new cold case initiative, he said.
He told them everything he knew, a long and complicated story he has repeated over and over to state, local and federal authorities.
His mother knew nothing about civil rights demonstrations. She rode a bus 30 miles each way to clean the houses of white women. She had gone to get ice cream from the corner store, then realized, as she walked along darkened U.S. 1, that she’d somehow dropped her wallet.
There were headlight beams, then gunfire from a passing car, and then she was kneeling in the grass, shot in the stomach. She bled to death. Her 10 children were scattered in separate foster homes because her widower, who worked two jobs to support his family, wasn’t deemed fit by local welfare authorities to raise the children on his own.
Many didn’t see each other for years.
Chappell’s children think the FBI should use the old confessions, and the testimony of Cody, to reopen the case. Shelton Chappell says the government could have federal jurisdiction because his mother was walking along a national highway when she was shot.
But he has not heard a word since that 2006 meeting in Atlanta, and doesn’t have much hope that he will.
“It’s a dog-and-pony show,” he says. “Nothing has happened. I don’t see any movement. I don’t know what they’re waiting on. Are they waiting on everybody to die? What else do you need?”
FBI unit chief Nancy Nelson, who is Peeples’ boss and oversees the public corruption and civil rights operations, insists her office is “passionate about these cases” and will continue looking at them.
"It's about time our federal government took comprehensive action to wash the stain of the senseless violence against Americans of color throughout the South in the 1950s and 1960s out of the fabric of our society," wrote Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League, in this Banner op-ed. More »
As an African American teenager in Louisiana, Keith Beauchamp tried interracial dating — behavior that prompted his parents to tell him the grisly tale of Emmett Till, who was murdered for whistling at a white woman. More »