A Changing South Revisits Its Unsolved Racial Killings

New York Times/November 8, 1999
By Emily Yellin

Birmingham, Ala. -- In Alabama, a federal grand jury has been hearing evidence for more than a year in a 1963 racist bombing that killed four black girls in a downtown Birmingham church.

In Louisiana, the wife of one of the first black deputy sheriffs in a small parish met in October with a prosecutor who recently began re-examining the 1965 killing of her husband in an ambush.

And in Mississippi, a white man pleaded guilty this summer, and three others are to go on trial Nov. 10, in the 1970 killing of a black sharecropper who was beaten and found dead in a rural river.

Across the South, these and other unresolved, racially motivated killings of blacks from the civil rights era are under new scrutiny. This fresh round of investigations into the long-ago killings, many of which were ignored by the authorities for years, was inspired by the well-publicized conviction in 1994 of an aging white defendant in the 1963 assassination of the Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

For years, black community leaders and relatives of victims complained about the lack of action in both the more prominent and lesser-known cases. But their urgings have been taken more seriously recently, experts and historians say, because the political, social and legal climate in the South has changed so significantly since the era of the killings.

Blacks have steadily gained political power and have pushed for these cases to be heard before today's racially diverse juries. At the same time, more witnesses, perhaps with less fear of retaliation and with heavy consciences they want to unburden, are coming forward. And a new breed of prosecutors and investigators, feeling a sense of urgency as many witnesses and defendants in the cases grow old, is realizing the important role that resolving these cases can play in the South's efforts to move beyond its past of racial hate and terrorism.

"In the South, we now have a black constituency that has political clout and a white constituency that is not against these hate-mongers being brought to justice," said David Sansing, professor emeritus of history at the University of Mississippi. "And the black constituency, emboldened by newfound political power, is saying, 'Justice delayed is justice denied, so let's quit denying this justice.' Surprisingly, they are being met with sympathy from district attorneys."

At least seven of these long-dormant cases are now being re-examined in the South. A few are before grand juries or are being prosecuted. But some have only just begun to be reinvestigated and have had little national attention. The case in Louisiana, for example, has gotten little publicity, even though a law officer, Deputy Sheriff Oneal Moore, was killed, and his partner, also black, was maimed. And there is the little-known case of the 1967 car-bombing of a black father of five who had been promoted to chemical mixer in a factory, a job usually reserved for white men. Another example of a lesser-known case involved the 1967 shooting of a black man at a protest by black university students.

The officials pursuing these cases are mostly Southern and white. Most are in their mid-40's to early 50's. A few have childhood memories of the crimes and of the violent reaction of the Ku Klux Klan to school integration and black voter registration. But they share some sense that the decades-old cases are a stumbling block to the South's progress.

"These prosecutors," Sansing said, "are realizing that they've got to do it now, rather than leave it unsettled forever."

For instance, United States Attorney Doug Jones, 45, a Birmingham native, was 9 when Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, a center for civil rights activity in the 1960's, was bombed, killing the four girls. As a law student in 1977 he skipped classes for a week to watch Bill Baxley, who was the Alabama attorney general, successfully prosecute the Klan leader Robert Chambliss for murder in the bombing.

Baxley chose not to prosecute other suspects at that time, in the hope that better cases could be developed against them later. When Jones became a United States attorney in 1997, he pushed for the current grand jury investigation of others named in Federal Bureau of Investigation files as suspects.

"To be able to get back and reopen the case, and let the community know that it's not forgotten, that's important for everybody," Jones said. Another reason the climate is better today for pursuing these cases, said Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., is that the F.B.I., which investigated some cases when they occurred, is more cooperative than it was 30 years ago.

In the Birmingham case, for example, documents show that J. Edgar Hoover, who was the F.B.I. director for nearly 50 years, prevented bureau agents from meeting with prosecutors to present the voluminous evidence they had collected. Now, it is the bureau that is leading the new investigation, along with Jones's office.

The re-examination of the Birmingham bombing was a result of meetings between local black religious and community leaders and local bureau officials in the mid-1990's. Officials close to the case now would not discuss specific evidence but have said there are no new suspects, only new information. Still, there are hints at the direction in which the case is going.

Of the three other suspects named in the original F.B.I. report, two are living: Tommy Blanton Jr. in Birmingham and Bobby Frank Cherry in Texas. According to published reports that have quoted officials extensively, as well as a book on the bombing, "Until Justice Rolls Down," by a Birmingham News reporter, Frank Sikora, witnesses cited in F.B.I. files named Cherry as the one who placed the bomb at the church. Blanton was said to have owned a car linked to the bombing.

Both men have maintained their innocence. The bureau interviewed Cherry recently and some members of his family have appeared before the grand jury hearing the case. Two white supremacists, J. B. Stoner and Robert Shelton, also appeared before the grand jury this summer. Stoner was convicted in another church bombing in Birmingham and shared a jail cell with Chambliss. Federal civil rights charges were used in the 1960's to convict a few suspects in these kinds of killings, but the statute of limitations on those federal charges ran out long ago in the Birmingham case as well as in all the other cases. Jones said there was also a possibility of using state murder charges, which have no statute of limitations, as was done in 1977 against Chambliss. Jones also said that his office was looking into using a Federal law with no statute of limitations concerning the transport of dynamite in the bombing.

But murder was the charge in the successful conviction in 1994 in Jackson, Miss., of the former Klansman Byron De La Beckwith, who shot to death Evers, the field secretary of the Mississippi National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The conviction came after two prosecutions of Beckwith ended in mistrials in the 1960's. The case inspired the film "Ghosts of Mississippi."

"The Medgar Evers case was a wedge in the dam," said Dees of the law center, which keeps track of hate crimes and first called attention to many of the unresolved killings with racial links. "It gave everyone a tremendous amount of hope."

That hope helped bring the call for reopening the Birmingham case. It also prompted the family of Vernon Dahmer in Mississippi to push for a trial in his 1966 killing. In 1998, a former Klan leader, Sam Bowers, was convicted of the firebombing murder of Dahmer, who had been the Hattiesburg N.A.A.C.P. president. Inspired by those successes, other families have begun pushing in the last year for answers in some of the lesser-known killings.

"The South is still in the process of a cleansing moment with these cases," said Myrlie Evers-Williams, 66, widow of Medgar Evers and chairwoman emeritus of the N.A.A.C.P. "I'm so thankful that others who have suffered the same injustice as we did have moved forth. To see that pebble dropped in the water and the ripples go out says something about justice in this country. There is still hope."

Still, not everyone is happy that these cases are back in the public spotlight. Many prosecutors said they had been asked over and over why they wanted to stir up trouble.

"I'll hear it from white people on the golf course," said Bob Helfrich, 45, the assistant district attorney in Hattiesburg who prosecuted Bowers and plans to prosecute another man charged in the Dahmer case, Charles Noble, next spring. "They say, 'Haven't we spent enough money on this?' I have blacks tell me not to mess with this, too. It is costly. But you can't put a price on justice."

In Birmingham, at a recent ceremony at the 16th Street Church commemorating the victims of the bombing, police officers stood guard outside. The pastor, the Rev. Christopher Hamlin, says such vigilance is necessary because the church has continued to receive bomb threats, especially in the three years since the case was reopened.

Across the street from the church, on a recent sunny day, Ronald Roscoe, 47, a heating and air-conditioning technician who is black, was spending his lunch break in Kelly Ingram Park, near its memorial honoring the four girls killed in the bombing. A city gardener using a leaf blower reminded Roscoe of the images from three decades ago of police officers wielding fire hoses in the park to disperse civil rights protesters. Referring to the reopening of the bombing case, Roscoe said: "It's a waste of time. I wish them luck, but after all this time I don't believe the guys who did the bombing are ever going to be convicted." Nearby, Shane Buggay, 32, an orthopedic surgeon, who is white, disagreed. "If they can get them, then those men should pay," Buggay said. "Time has nothing to do with it. They are still trying to convict Nazis for war crimes from World War II. It is just like that."

But not all of these recently resurrected cases in the South have resulted in convictions.

In Belzoni, Miss., this summer, one suspect was acquitted in the 1970 slaying of Rainey Pool, a sharecropper. Another man, Joe Oliver Watson, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the case this summer and is awaiting sentencing. Three others are set to go on trial on Nov. 10 on charges of murdering Pool.

In Montgomery, Ala., earlier this year, a grand jury failed to indict two suspects, both former Klansmen, in the 1957 slaying of Willie Edwards Jr., a black truck driver.

And officials in Philadelphia, Miss., despite urging from the families of the victims, are not saying publicly whether they are investigating or will try to prosecute in state court any of the 18 men indicted on federal civil rights charges in the deaths of three civil rights workers there in 1964. Seven of those 18, including Bowers, were convicted on federal charges, but none have been tried by the state for the Philadelphia killings.

Baxley, the former Alabama attorney general who prosecuted the Birmingham bombing case in 1977, said some of the same problems he encountered 20 years ago still existed. For instance, he said his main concern in 1977 was to show the jury that Chambliss, by then a frail 74-year-old, had once been capable of killing four children. "It worried me," Baxley said, "that they would look at him and think how could this old man be a threat to anybody. So we had to let the jury see that this is not a harmless old grandfather or uncle. They had to see the evil in this man."

Other major impediments to getting convictions are aging witnesses with failing memories, or significant witnesses who have died. In some of the killings, no case files exist and no transcripts from trials on federal charges exist, as they do in more well-known cases like the Evers slaying, the killings of the Philadelphia, Miss., rights workers and the Birmingham church bombing.

Another hurdle in the Birmingham case in 1977 was that people remained afraid of retaliation from the Klan. Two major witnesses whose testimony Baxley believed might have helped convict others in the bombing refused to testify.

These days, some of that same fear persists, but it is far less potent. In the Birmingham case this summer, the third of Cherry's five wives told reporters before her grand jury testimony that Cherry had admitted his involvement in the bombing and had bragged about it. "Not all people remain the same all through their lives," said Joseph Lewis, 47, head of the Birmingham division of the F.B.I., which has been investigating the case since 1996. "When they are getting close to their final days, they may say, 'Well, it's time to clear my conscience before I meet my maker.' That's what you hope for in cases like this." http://www.nytimes.com/yr/mo/day/news/national/unresolved-murders.html

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