By William Fisher
Fifty-five years ago this summer, two white men abducted, tortured and killed a 14-year-old black youth, Emmett Till, allegedly for whistling at a white store clerk while on a visit to Mississippi.
An all-white jury acquitted the clerk’s husband and half-brother in a state court trial most regard as a farce.
Till's murder proved to be one of the catalyzing events of the civil rights movement. Black leaders, religious and labor organizations and numerous public officials called on the Justice Department (DOJ) to act. But Federal authorities claimed, erroneously, that only state officials could prosecute racially motivated crimes.
Rosa Parks – often hailed as “the mother of the civil rights movement” -- has said that it was the Till murder that motivated her to refuse to move to the back of an Alabama bus from the ‘white’ seating section in 1955. Her action would lead, almost a decade later, to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending racial segregation in public accommodations and services in the U.S.
Last year, after relentless pressure from civil rights, labor and religious leaders, the FBI finally reopened its investigation into Till's murder, and two weeks ago exhumed his body to perform DNA and other analyses to determine that the body is indeed that of Emmett Till. After identity has been determined, investigators will seek clues about how Till died. No autopsy was ever performed on the young body found in a river wrapped in barbed wire.
It was similar evidence that led to the 1994 conviction white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith in the 1963 shooting death of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, whose body was exhumed in 1991.
And since 1989, federal authorities have re-examined 22 deaths from the civil rights era and made 25 arrests, leading to 16 convictions, two acquittals and one mistrial.
Perhaps the most famous of these trials was for the murder of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney, who were targeted for their Freedom Summer work challenging segregation. The trio was intercepted by three carloads of Ku Klux Klansmen near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964. They were shot, and their bodies buried beneath a 15-foot earthen dam. Federal officials conducted a massive hunt for the three, but it was ultimately a Klan informant who led them to the bodies.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said more than 20 men took part in the killing plot by the Klan, and 18 were indicted and tried. The jury convicted seven defendants. Eight others were acquitted. The jury was unable to reach a verdict in three other cases.
The judge in the case, an ardent segregationist, sentenced two of the men to ten years, two others to six years, and the other three to four years. The judge said of his sentences, "They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man -- I gave them all what I thought they deserved."
The convictions in the case represented the first ever in Mississippi for the killing of a civil rights worker. The investigation and trial later became the basis for the film “Mississippi Burning”.
But more than a dozen Mississippi civil-rights-era murder cases remain
un-reopened and un-investigated. These include:
Rev. George Lee, a minister who preached about voting rights in black Baptist churches more than a decade before the height of the civil rights movement, was driving home in 1955 when he was hit with gunfire from a passing car. The County sheriff quickly claimed his death was a traffic accident. Asked about the lead pellets taken from Lee's face and head, the sheriff replied they were probably dental fillings. The coroner ruled the death resulted from "unknown causes."
Lamar Smith, a World War II veteran, organized voter registration drives. In 1955, he and some white men got into an argument. A number of witnesses saw one of the white men pull out a pistol and shoot Smith at close range. Three men were arrested but went free when none of the witnesses would testify to what they had seen. Those three men have since died.
Four years later, Mack Charles Parker was accused of raping a white woman. When he was arrested, a Mississippi state trooper offered the woman's husband a pistol to shoot Parker. Three days before Parker was to stand trial, he was dragged from his jail cell, beaten and shot. His body was found in a river 10 days later. The FBI investigated and obtained confessions from some of the eight white suspects. However, the county prosecutor refused to present evidence to a state grand jury and a federal grand jury refused to indict.
When civil rights activist Bob Moses arrived in 1961 in Mississippi, Herbert Lee served as one of his guides. Lee drove Moses around in the black community to talk about voting rights. Lee was killed by a then-state legislator after an argument. He told authorities he shot Lee in self-defense, and a black witness testified to a coroner's jury that Lee was armed and arguing. No charges were filed. The witness later recanted his story, only to be killed himself.
Louis Allen was a witness to the killing of Herbert Lee. He initially testified to a coroner's jury that Lee was armed with a tire iron and killed in an argument, but later told civil rights workers he had been ordered to lie by a white man and followed the instructions to protect his family. He kept silent for more than two years. He was about to move away from Mississippi when he was found dead in his driveway, riddled with buckshot.
Fifty-five years on, Mississippians say the mentality of the 1950s and 60s has disappeared – indeed, African-Americans have been elected to the state legislature and to many mayoral offices. But the many unsolved murders ensure that the civil rights movement will continue to cast a long shadow. Each passing year sees the deaths of prospective suspects and victims, making the work of investigators extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible.