Civil Rights Cold Cases Discussed

A panel of advocates for further investigation into civil rights murders explained why their cases were important, even after 40 years, to an audience that included children from the South Side.

The Cold Case Justice Initiative presented the panel discussion, held Saturday, Feb. 27, on the Syracuse University campus. The justice initiative is made up of a group of law professors, law students, an investigative journalist and the families of the victims.

“This was a miscarriage of American justice,” said Robert Lee III, an investigator for the Cold Case Justice Initiative who grew up in the Louisiana area where the killings took place. “We’re looking for justice and closure.”

It has been difficult, the panelists said, to persuade authorities to bring that closure: At the time, authorities were too corrupt to follow through after lackluster investigations, possibly for racially motivated reasons. The victims were black, and investigators believe that the killers were likely members of the Ku Klux Klan or splinter groups.

During the discussion, several panelists said that many consider the cases to be cold.

“There’s nothing cold about this,” said Paula Johnson, the co-director of the initiative and a SU law professor. “We’re living with a lack of answers and a lack of judicial process. This is about the people in this room today.”

One of the people in room, panelist Wharlest Jackson Jr., provided a living example of that.

His father, Wharlest Jackson Sr., was killed in an explosion on his way home from work. A bomb had been planted under his truck. The FBI investigated, but nobody was arrested, and nobody was charged. His father’s death certificate says that he was killed in an accident, Jackson said.

At one point, overcome with emotion and crying, Jackson left the room to collect himself. The day, Feb. 27, marked the 43rd anniversary of his father’s death.

“He was my role model,” Jackson said. “My idol. He was everything to me. He was such a great man and he was snatched from us in such a cruel way.”

The Cold Case Justice Initiative is investigating the Jackson case, as well as several others. The group recently found 7,000 pages of documents that law students are now poring over and organizing. The FBI recently asked to see them, said Janis McDonald, a law professor and co-director of the justice initiative.

In response to their efforts, the FBI and the Department of Justice are now paying special attention to the cases, McDonald and Johnson said. The cold cases are coming off the back burner.

Even with increased attention, the families of the victims and investigators expressed disbelief that a group of private citizens has had to take on this case.

“There’s never any justice,” Jackson said. “Just us. The city never did anything until we did.”

The murder of Frank Morris, a business owner in Ferriday, La., was the one that started it all. Investigative journalist Stanley Nelson, who works for the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, has written more than 150 stories since he started investigating the slayings three years ago.

Morris’ granddaughter, Rosa Morris Williams, told him that she learned more from his articles in a few weeks than she had learned from government investigations in 40 years, Nelson said.

Frank Morris was sleeping in the back of his shoe shop in December of 1964 when three men broke in, poured gasoline over the store and lit it on fire. Morris suffered severe burns and died at the hospital four days later.

The panelists explained that an investigation into racially motivated killings was hampered by law enforcement’s reputation as being on the side of white people.

“The families had nobody to talk to,” said McDonald, a SU professor.

Law enforcement in 2010 has been more receptive. Federal officials have assigned investigators to the case, McDonald and Johnson said.

Nelson, the investigative journalist, said he believes these cases can be solved. But time is of the essence.

“We’ve got social issues to solve, but we’ve got murders to solve, first,” Nelson said. “And we’re running out of time.”

Ronique Williams, who watched the discussion with a group of South Side youngsters from Mary Nelson’s Youth Center, said that the investigation and presentation was important for the children.

“It’s beautiful that they came out and shared what happened to them, especially their families,” Williams said. “I didn’t even know a lot of it was happening.”

Williams is writing an essay with the children about what they learned. “What I learned today was that sometimes, you have to come out with your own information,” she said.