Race

Congress Considers Civil Rights 'Cold Case' Push

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Somewhere in Georgia's Taylor County, 37-year-old Maceo Snipes lies in an unmarked grave.

"They shot him like a rabbit, like you shoot a rabbit down, or you shoot a wild dog down," says Lulu Kate Montfort, Snipes' niece.

Snipes was killed in 1946 when Montfort was 13. Montfort says a carload of white men pulled up to her grandmother's house and shot her uncle, a black war veteran. She believes it was because he had voted in Georgia's Democratic primary the day before.

"And it was so bad the threat was out that if any other relatives came to town, like his brothers, they would be killed," she said. "So the undertaker, and my mother's cousin, took my uncle and buried him someplace in the woods. To this day we don't know where my uncle is buried."

Montfort's case isn't unique. Federal prosecutors have made arrests in more than two dozen high-profile murders since 1989, and gained convictions in most of them.

A new proposal before Congress — the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act — would create special cold-case units in the FBI and Justice Departments to solve the cases before perpetrators die off.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently called on the FBI to open investigations into 74 unsolved cold cases. Time is running out for these lesser-known victims, says Alvin Sykes, head of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign.

"Most of this is he evidence is in the minds of our grandparents who (when) their young loved ones walked out and never came back," Sykes says, "Rather than deal with the system that they believe took them in the first place, they just moved away."

After her uncle was shot, Montfort and her siblings fled Taylor County, hidden under a canvas in the back of a truck. Now in her 70s, Montfort is back, trying to get the political muscle and community support needed to revive the Snipes case. But so far the Taylor County Board of Commissioners has refused to hear her out.

Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney, successfully prosecuted an elderly Klansman for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls.

"People die. People's memories fade. Evidence gets lost," Jones says. "Every day that passes is one more day where some witness fades away — either they die or their memories are gone. [It's] one more opportunity for someone to clean out an office or warehouse or file cabinet. Time is the biggest enemy here."

Jones says he succeeded because he had crucial access to extra federal investigators for research, expensive DNA labs, and some of the FBI's original case files from the period. Many of the cases are too old to be prosecuted under federal civil rights statutes, but the bill establishes a system for federal investigative work to be turned over to local prosecutors who don't always have the money or manpower to open cold cases.

"My experience tells me that the initial investigations are not going to be very thorough — very sloppy or not conducted at all," he says. "So to start from scratch in these old cases will be very, very difficult."

Jerry Mitchell, a newspaper reporter for The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Miss., says the bill should have passed 10 to 15 years ago.

Mitchell says the bill may be making headway now because over the years, the South and the nation have become more used to reviving these cold cases.

"When I first started writing about these cases back in 1989, I would have people call and cuss me and say I was a 'n-word lover,' he says. "As time has gone on more people embrace this and recognize it is the right thing to do."

This is the third time the bill has been introduced to Congress. But this time it has more than 65 co-sponsors, some of whom are Democrats who have moved into key positions. Officials at the Justice Department and FBI say they welcome the $11 million a year the law would provide to support their efforts. And for people like Lulu Montfort it would be just in time.

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