Cold-case movement sheds light on civil rights era’s darkest crimes

As three of the most prominent martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Emmett Till are names that will forever be canonized in American history. These individuals, whose names are almost immediately recognizable, came to symbolize the turbulent, dangerous and often bloody legacy of America’s struggle for racial equality.

But for every Till, Evers and King, there’s a Jackson, Morris and Walker. The latter names are lesser-known counterparts to their higher-profile brethren felled during the civil rights era. They are also just a few of the more than 100 “cold cases” from that time — unsolved murders where the trail leading to the perpetrators has long gone cold (a prominent example of this was the 2004 decision to re-investigate Till’s murder). In many instances, official corruption and state-sanctioned bigotry prevented these cases from being investigated properly in the first place. Many victories for racial equality were forged in the crucible of the South during that epoch, but in many ways the unresolved deaths represent how wounds still fester over the battle against racism. Although some — including some surviving family members of the victims — have questioned the valu of re-opening old wounds, the commitment of those involved in the project goes without question.

For several years, a broad-based movement has quietly taken up the effort to investigate unsolved civil rights-related murders. Where possible, the objective is to bring the killers to justice. As part of that effort, the first episode of a new cable television series called The Injustice Files, begins airing today on the Investigation Discovery (ID) network. With the help of filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, the show hopes to shed new light on some the most notorious unsolved murders of the civil rights era. Filled with haunting images of dated photos, newspaper clippings and old newsreels, the show gives a close-up account of the ugly, violent side of the civil rights era that didn’t involve marches, peaceful protests and speeches.


Under a 2007 FBI initiative, the law enforcement agency partnered with several national organizations, including the Urban League and the NAACP, to revisit racism-tinged homicides that occurred before 1970. The Injustice Files series features work by documentarian Keith Beauchamp, and excavates some of the more infamous unsolved and under-investigated cases that apathy and the annals of time have left behind.

The premiere takes viewers through a time machine to Natchez, Miss to investigate the unsolved murder of Wharlet Jackson in 1967, a Korean War veteran who was a founding member of the city’s NAACP chapter. Jackson was a civil rights trailblazer in his own right — he was elevated to a job reserved exclusively for whites. Sadly, the father of five paid for that promotion with his life, as he was killed by a car bomb. As the show explains, the prime suspect, a man named Raleigh “Red” Glover, died in 1984 as a free man without ever being prosecuted. The case was re-opened 14 years later by a former police chief.

Needless to say, unsolved murders, especially those exported from the turbulent civil rights era, lend themselves to heavy emotions. The Injustice Files wields those that to great dramatic effect, which can lead to scenes that border on the melodramatic. At one point, Beauchamp confronts one suspect in his front yard during an unannounced visit, in a way almost comically reminiscent of the infamous To Catch a Predator series. But the on-camera drama illustrates what lay at the heart of this series, and the cold-case effort itself: putting a human face on heinous crimes, and forcing possible killers to face the consequences of their crimes. The struggle for civil rights was a time of momentous change, but also filled with terror and uncertainty. Many of the era’s pioneers who ventured into the front lines were risking their lives, and returning to their families were far from assured. All of which gives ballast to one of the most salient criticisms of the cold case effort: is it worth dredging up all the pain years later? The Injustice Files underscores a key issue that shows why many unsolved murders are allowed to wither on the vine: a lack of iron-clad evidence.

Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics provide a stark reminder of the difficulties prosecutors face in carrying civil rights cases across the finish line. During 1990-1997, civil rights filings doubled in U.S. district courts from 18,922 to 43,278, but fell by about 20 percent during 2003 through 2006. During 1990-2006, the percentage of civil rights cases brought to trial tumbled sharply, from 8 percent to 3 percent. And during the period of 2000-2006, only a third of plaintiffs prevailed at trial, with the amounts won less than $200,000.

As The Injustice Files illustrates, there’s a very fine line between suspicion of involvement, and knowledge beyond a reasonable doubt. Particularly in federal cases, the evidentiary bar can be lofty: If prosecutors expend time and precious few resources on these cases, they want to have the strongest possible chance for conviction. In many instances, there is a dearth of fingerprints, photos, DNA, and other samples of incontrovertible proof.

Suspicions were also rife that in many epicenters of civil rights murders, KKK members (or those sympathetic to their aims) had either infiltrated or subverted law enforcement institutions. As a result, investigations and the evidence they produce are likely to be tainted, or unreliable at a minimum.

Given how tough it is to achieve a conviction, is there real value in the cold-case movement? Family members such as Warlest Jackson Jr., shown during the show sobbing inconsolably as he recalls his father’s death, would probably argue in the affirmative. But the wheels of justice can churn painfully slow; with the passage of time, they get downright rusty. For some family members, there is no possible way to salve the wounds that remain fresh, or restore what was lost. Anna Ruth Montgomery, the daughter of a black woman killed in Georgia during the civil rights movement, told NPR a few years ago that if officials couldn’t find the evidence to convict, they should just “let it rest.”

For many family members, there will never be complete closure. And make no mistake: the government’s efforts have been flawed and the results underwhelming. But this is not to argue that the civil rights cold-case movement can’t serve an important function. Firstly, it is never in the interest of justice to allow killers to walk away without accountability. And much like the truth commissions of Latin America’s dirty wars and South Africa’s apartheid era, re-investigating unsolved civil rights murders can provide a useful service in helping set the historical record straight.