Legally Speaking: The Civil Rights cold cases � A vow never to forget

John G. Browning Feb. 20, 2008, 5:35am

On Feb. 12, 2008, at a Black History Month event at the White House, President Bush noted the disturbing recent displays of nooses at schools, workplaces and neighborhoods around the country, and suggested that some Americans may have lost sight of the suffering endured by African-Americans.

From the University of Maryland to Jena, La., hate crime incidents have been on the rise (the FBI reports that such crimes rose by nearly 8 percent in 2006), as younger generations seem increasingly oblivious to one of the most shameful chapters in American history. The need to remember the tragedies of the past to ensure that they are not repeated in the future has never been more important.

One step in the right direction came approximately one year ago with the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act by Congress. This legislation gives the Department of Justice and the FBI the ability to reopen civil rights-era criminal cases that have gone cold with the passage of time.

It is named after Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago who was murdered and mutilated in 1955 in one of the most notorious race crimes of the 20th century. Till was visiting family in Mississippi and allegedly whistled at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant. Bryant's husband Roy and J.W. Milam kidnapped the 14 year old from his great-uncle's home; several days later, Till's body, savagely beaten and almost unrecognizable, was fished out of the Tallahatchie River. Bryant and Milam were arrested, but were acquitted by an all-white jury.

The Emmett Till Act authorizes $10 million a year over the next decade to create the cold case unit, as well as an additional $1.5 million annually to improve coordination among investigating agencies. It also provides $2 million per year in grants for state and local law enforcement agencies to investigate cases where federal prosecution isn't practical.

The new cold case unit is "solely dedicated to investigating and prosecuting unsolved cases that involved violations of criminal civil rights statutes, resulting in death, and occurring before Jan. 1, 1970."

According to Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a co-sponsor of the Act, "Justice is better served by allowing our nation to acknowledge past wrongs, including wrongs aided by lax law enforcement."

His sentiments were echoed by Rep. John Lewis of Georgia (a civil rights leader and an original co-sponsor of the bill), who proclaimed "These unsolved murders leave a stain on the integrity of the judicial system in America."

Sadly, there is an uphill battle to be waged in these cold cases. As Mark Potok with the Southern Poverty Law Center points out, "The bitter reality is that many witnesses have died or cannot recall key events, and there are fewer of them as time goes by."

In addition, there's no shortage of unsolved cases still on the books. For example, in 1946 a pregnant African-American woman and her husband driving through Monroe, Ga., were forced from their car by a white mob. They were dragged down a wagon trail and shot, reportedly in front of a crowd of 200 people; no one has ever been charged for these crimes.

Yet even before the Emmett Till Act, a handful of states embarked upon tackling similarly cold civil rights-era cases, even creating special units in states like Florida and Alabama. Since 1989, authorities in seven states have re-examined 29 killings from the civil rights era. Twenty-eight arrests were made, leading to 22 convictions.

One of these was the 2007 conviction in Jackson, Miss., of former Klansman James Seale, 71, on federal charges of kidnapping and conspiracy in the May 2, 1964, abduction and killings of Henry Dee and Charles Moore.

But civil rights cold cases are not the only examples of the racial injustice of the past that need light shed on them. This week, public television stations around Texas aired "Banished", a documentary that looks at incidents from the 1860s to the 1920s in which dozens of communities across the United States violently expelled their entire African-American populations.

Thousands of black families, usually after a violent incident like a lynching, were forced to flee their homes and businesses. Property was lost, and many of these towns and counties remain all-white even today.

"Banished," which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of three of these counties – each one with black descendants who return to learn of this shocking history and white residents who have to confront the shameful past. "Banished" may remind viewers of the film "Rosewood", about the real-life destruction and exile of a thriving African-American community in Florida.

The documentary also owes much to the work of author Eliot Jaspin, whose 2007 book "Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Ethnic Cleansing in America" also focused on selected incidents of racial expulsion occurring in places like Kentucky, Indiana and Texas.

An episode that both the documentary "Banished" and Jaspin's book overlooked occurred close to home, in Sherman, Texas. In 1930, with the onset of the Great Depression in full swing in Grayson County, a black farmhand named George Hughes was accused of raping the wife of his employer.

Hughes, who initially maintained that he had just gone to the farmhouse to confront the woman's husband over wages he was owed, fled but was quickly caught. He was indicted and trial was set for May 9, only 6 days after the alleged assault. Although a trial began amid a frenzy of onlookers and the media, there was drama inside the courtroom as well.

The alleged victim was carried into the courthouse on a stretcher, but the accused never got to confront his accuser; to avoid undue "embarrassment" for the victim, the county attorney read a statement that he had taken from her.

Texas Rangers were dispatched to the courthouse as mob tensions rose. Before the trial could be completed, Hughes was taken for safety reasons to the district clerk's second-floor vault.

But the mob surged into the courthouse, up the stairs, and into the courtroom. The courthouse was set on fire, the vault was dynamited open, and Hughes was dragged down the street by a chain around his neck before being lynched from a cottonwood tree near the black-owned Smith Hotel.

His lifeless body was then set ablaze; as onlookers – many of them women with small children – watched Hughes' corpse roast. Chewing gum, drinks and other refreshments looted from the hotel and a black-owned drugstore were consumed by the crowd.

The mob wasn't content with burning down the Grayson County courthouse and the Smith Hotel. A thriving black business district – funeral homes, cafes, a theater, two doctors' offices, a lawyer's office and many other buildings – was destroyed, as were many black residences.

Despite the deployment of the National Guard and the imposition of martial law, typewritten notices appeared throughout the town warning blacks to leave within 24 hours. In overwhelming numbers, the African-American community heeded the warning.

Fourteen members of the mob were indicted, but only two were ever tried (each received token sentences of two years). It speaks volumes that while door-to-door canvassing took place to raise bail money and legal defense funds for the members of the lynch mob, no money was ever raised to help replace the black-owned properties that were destroyed.

Sherman was not an isolated instance. According to a study of racial violence in north Texas and central Oklahoma, African-Americans were forced out of other communities as well – Whitesboro, Bella, Southmayd, Ruella, Hagermann, Pottsboro, and Saddler.

The "lynching culture" in Texas, as professor William D. Carrigan described it in his book "The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836-1916," was characterized by a failure of the judicial system to prosecute mob leaders, leading to an implicit approval of lynching.

When we don't acknowledge and learn from the past, or when we allow unsolved cold cases to become not merely justice delayed but justice denied, we compound that failure of the judicial system.

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