No Closure for Old Racial Murders
The month after the conviction of former Klansmen Bobby Frank Cherry for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 that killed four black girls, Mississippi prosecutor Ronnie Harper announced that he would reopen the case of Charles Moore and Henry Dee. The two black college students were kidnapped, savagely beaten, and dumped into a river in 1964 by suspected Klan killers. At first glance, the Cherry conviction and the reopening of this case seems proof that a new breed of white, young, no-nonsense D.A.s in the South are determined to nail the perpetrators of old racial crimes.
They have undoubtedly scored some notable victories. State prosecutors in Mississippi convicted Byron de la Beckwith in 1994 for the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and former Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers in 1998 for the 1965 firebomb-murder of Mississippi NAACP official Vernon Dahmer. For years the murdered men's relatives pressed prosecutors to bring charges against the killers. Moore's brother, a retired Army officer, pushed and prodded Mississippi officials to reopen his case. Southern prosecutors say they will consider reopening nine other old racial murder cases.
But even if they eventually bring some of the killers to trial, there are still many more racial murders that scream for redress. The following are some of the more blatant racial murders in which the suspected killers may still be alive.
- 1959, Mack Charles Parker was seized from a Mississippi jail by a group of armed white men. Parker was accused of raping a white woman. Ten days later Parker's mutilated body was fished out of a river in Louisiana. Within three weeks of the killing, FBI agents identified his killers. They had solid evidence that the murderers had crossed state lines, and that law enforcement officers had conspired with the killers. No state or federal charges were ever brought.
- In 1961, a white Mississippi state representative murdered Herbert Lee, an NAACP worker, on an open highway during a traffic dispute. Lee was unarmed. No state or federal charges were ever brought.
- In 1965, Jimmy Lee Jackson, a black church deacon, was gunned down by an Alabama state trooper following a voting rights protest march and rally in Marion, Alabama. Eyewitnesses insisted that Jackson was unarmed and did not threaten the officer. No state or federal charges were ever brought.
Also, according to FBI reports, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a para-military terror squad in Mississippi, committed nine murders between 1960 and 1965. In nearly all cases, FBI agents quickly learned the identities of the suspected killers through Klan informants, or the men's own boasts of the killings. There was only a token effort made to bring them to justice.
Moore and Dee was a textbook example of this legal indifference. Within days after their murders, the FBI identified two prime suspects in their murders. Though they were arrested, the charges were quickly dropped. Prosecutors claimed insufficient evidence to prosecute and that it would be virtually impossible to get a white jury to convict them.
Moore, Dee and the other victims were not solely victims of Klan terrorists, hostile local sheriffs, and state officials, but also of a racially indifferent federal government. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson cautiously and reluctantly pushed the FBI to make arrests and the Justice Department to bring indictments in the murders of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, Army Major Lemeul Penn in Georgia in 1964, and civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo in Alabama in 1965.
But these were murders that triggered national outrage, and state officials were defiant in their refusal to take action. When pressed for more prosecutions, federal officials claimed that the states were solely responsible for prosecuting these crimes, and if they wouldn't there was little they could do about it. This was blatant legal evasion.
Two federal statutes gave the Justice Department the power to prosecute public officials and law enforcement officers who committed or conspired with others to commit acts of racial violence. The statutes were enacted by Congress immediately after the Civil War and were aimed at specifically punishing racial attacks against blacks. In many of the racial killings local sheriffs and police officers directly participated in the attacks, or aided and abetted the killers. Federal officials also could have prosecuted many of the killers under the Lindberg Act, passed in 1934, which made kidnapping a federal offense. Moore and Dee, for instance, were abducted and taken to a national forest, where they were beaten and likely murdered. This gave the feds jurisdiction over the case.
Reopening an investigation into the murders of Moore and Dee tosses another ugly glare on the period in the South when blacks were murdered with the tacit approval of Southern state officials, and the blind eye of the federal government. When state and federal prosecutors prosecute the suspected killers in all these cases, only then can the book be permanently closed on the South's hideous legacy of racial murders.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).