Civil rights-era killings yield secrets to FBI probe
By Carrie Johnson
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Three years after the FBI pledged to investigate more than 100 unsolved civil rights killings, the agency is ready to
close all but a handful. Investigators say they have solved most of the mysteries behind the cases, but few will result
in indictments, given the passage of decades, the deaths of prime suspects and the challenge of gathering evidence.
"There's maybe five to seven cases where we don't know who did it," said FBI Special Agent Cynthia Deitle, who is
heading the bureau's effort. "Some we know; others we know but can't prove. For every other case, we got it."
Even without taking cases to court, the project has filled in broad gaps in the stories of the murdered, many of whom
were forgotten victims from a brutal chapter of American history.
Officials now believe, for example, that an Alabama state trooper killed an unarmed civil rights protester in 1965, a
case that helped inspire the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to march in the state. In the deaths of two North Carolina men
in police custody -- one found in 1956 with a crushed skull and the other who refused medical treatment in 1960 after
a heart attack -- the agency concluded that there was no federal law it could use to pursue the cases.
Investigators have walked through rural cemeteries looking for clues, searched yellowed documents in government
archives and interviewed witnesses, some so shattered by their experiences that they still refused to talk. Along the
way, officials discovered a more complex story than they had imagined.
In nearly one-fifth of the 108 cases, they learned that the deaths had no connection to the racial unrest pulsing
through the South at the height of the civil rights struggle.
In at least one case, the victim had been killed by a relative, but the family blamed the Ku Klux Klan. In other cases, a
victim drowned or was fatally knifed in a bar fight. Two black women registering voters in the hot Mississippi summer
died in a car accident. One man died under his mistress -- a bedroom secret kept for more than four decades until
the bureau came calling.
The FBI's project, which at its peak involved more than 40 agents working in cities across the South and along the
Eastern Seaboard, was the agency's most focused campaign to find out what happened in the deaths. For some
families, hopes of a legal reckoning have been dashed, but the investigation has produced a different kind of
"These racially motivated murders are some of the greatest blemishes on our nation's history," said Thomas E.
Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights. "We owe it to people who were all a part of this struggle to be
persistent. . . . If we can solve a number of these cases, that's fantastic. But if we can bring to closure all of these
cases, I think this will be well worth the effort."
At the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., where the names of victims are etched on the walls of the
organization's civil rights memorial, President Richard Cohen added, "Justice in a few of those cases is going to have
to serve as a symbolic victory in all of them."
From a conference room on the third floor of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover Building in the District, the civil rights struggle
continues. But four decades or longer after the deaths, nearly every aspect of the trail has gone cold.
Special Agent James Hosty, a former police officer from Kansas who joined the FBI after helping capture the
notorious "BTK" serial killer, has spent three years hunting down leads in a case near Atlanta.
In 1946, four black sharecroppers were killed on Moore's Ford Bridge in Walton County, Georgia, prompting
President Harry S. Truman to order the FBI to work round-the-clock to bring the shooters to justice. As many as two
dozen people, some of them prominent members of the community, might have been involved in the deaths,
But no charges were filed -- and volumes of case files sat untouched in FBI archives in Silver Spring for decades until
the investigation was reopened by Howard Hatfield, who is an assistant special agent in charge at the Atlanta office,
and an agent was assigned full time to the case.
"It basically took six to eight months to get through those records and determine who was alive or dead," Hosty said.
Some of those Hosty thinks witnessed or were involved in the killings had neither a Social Security number nor any
other identifier that would allow him to determine whether they are alive and could be questioned or prosecuted.
The case remains unsolved, but new evidence allowed investigators to secure a search warrant in 2008, 62 years
after the deadly encounter. FBI agents in Atlanta said they continue to work leads, hoping for a breakthrough from
witnesses who at the time feared talking to authorities but since might have changed their minds.
In many of the unsolved cases, family members or victims' rights advocates have complained about how long it has
taken for the federal government to investigate and about what they say is the lack of results. But more reasonable
expectations are called for by Alvin Sykes, who was part of a successful effort to have the government reopen the
investigation into the 1955 killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Mississippi case that helped launch the civil rights
"From the beginning, our focus was not just to prosecute cases but to find the truth," Sykes said. "We're not
disappointed, but we do expect to find a significant number of more cases through the outreach effort, a criminal
manhunt to find these people, and go from there."