MELISSA BLOCK HOST: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDEREDfrom NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. In 2007, FBI Director Robert Mueller stood at a podium with officials from major civil rights groups. He announced that he had ordered his agents to investigate more than 100 killings, what he called cold cases, from the Civil Rights era. The announcement came as the chance of solving old cases was fading. After half a century, witnesses and suspects had died, evidence had been lost and memories dimmed.
As a result, that renewed FBI effort led to just two successful prosecutions. The vast majority of the cases have been closed with no action taken. NPR's Joseph Shapiro examined one of the cases that's still open.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In the segregated South in 1965, John Queen was about as low in the social order as a man could be. He was black. He was elderly, 65 years old. He was paralyzed. His legs had been crushed when, as a boy, he'd fallen off the roof of a house. For the rest of his life he scooted around on his hands. In Fayette, Mississippi, people called him Crippled Johnny or Shoe-Shine Johnny. He'd shine your shoes on Main Street for a few coins.
Queen was a town character, sometimes friendly, sometimes he'd been drinking. On August 8th, 1965 a stranger, a white police constable from the next county, drove his Buick through town and parked on Main Street. John Queen was with friends laughing and joking but Queen's voice was loud, loud enough for the white man to hear him curse.
MARTHA WALLACE: All I remember, I heard the word (censored) or damn or something like that. And I know the man said, don't talk like that in front of my wife and daughter.
SHAPIRO: That's Martha Wallace. She said she was standing just a few feet away.
WALLACE: And John, you know, John had kind of a big mouth. John said, I can say (censored) whenever I get ready. And that was it. And the next thing I heard was a shot.
SHAPIRO: She heard one gunshot and John Queen was dead. It happened at the icehouse on Main Street. There's a new warehouse here now but back in 1965, people without electricity came to buy blocks of ice. And on a steamy summer afternoon, Wallace, who was 18, and her sister Hilda Johnson, who was 12, were hanging out at the icehouse where cold air wafted from the ice-making machines.
WALLACE: Next thing we know, we heard the shot. I just really heard one shot, really loud, a firecracker to me.
SHAPIRO: It took just moments for authorities to decide what happened, that it was Queen who was the aggressor, that Queen shot first and that the white man fired in self-defense. NPR wanted to check out that official story. We worked with Stanley Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, Louisiana, who writes about the area's history of racial violence. NPR made a Freedom of Information Act request and got the FBI's file. The investigation that started in 2008 quickly stalled because agents could find only two witnesses, the man who shot John Queen and the man's sister.
But NPR found several new witnesses who've never told their stories to the FBI. The Department of Justice could still prosecute after all these years but likely only if the white man, a law enforcement officer, shot a defenseless paraplegic black man. Now, as a listener, you probably expect a story like this to solve a mystery, to tell you exactly how John Queen died. But our witnesses tell conflicting stories. So this is a story about how justice worked or didn't work in a segregated world from our not-that-distant past.
MELISSA MARTIN WRIGHT: I just remember hearing a boom and turning and seeing some, you know, someone tumble. And they were - it was a black man and he was crippled.
SHAPIRO: Melissa Martin Wright, who was seven years old, was directly across the street. And she, just like sisters Martha Wallace and Hilda Johnson, heard just one shot and then saw Queen dead, his red blood mixed with the ice water. So let's call this theory one, that the white man killed Queen with one shot. But here's where things get murky. We also found witnesses who say John Queen had a gun, too.
CHARLES DAWKINS: It was an old revolver of some type and I don't remember it being all that big, but it was old.
SHAPIRO: Charles Dawkins is one of four witnesses, black and white, who say they arrived at the icehouse moments after the shooting and saw Queen's body with a gun in his hand. And a friend said Queen once showed him an old gun he kept in one of his shoeshine boxes. And some people said, from a distance, they heard what sounded like multiple gun shots. And at the scene they saw multiple bullet holes. So this is theory two, that John Queen had a gun as well.
But here's the problem. Even if both men had guns, we just don't know for sure who pulled a gun first. Back in 1965, there was no crime scene investigation. No one roped off the icehouse or recovered the bullet or bullets. There was no autopsy. Instead, the story that was quickly accepted as the official truth was the story told by that white man, Jasper Burchfield. And Burchfield told authorities at two official hearings how Queen pulled a gun and shot first, how Burchfield then reached into his car, got his service revolver and fired back. I wanted to ask Jasper Burchfield about that day.
JASPER BURCHFIELD: No, I ain't telling you nothing. Zero.
SHAPIRO: On the porch of his newly built wood house, Burchfield went from angry to ornery. And by the end of more than an hour he got downright friendly. He talked about his business, cleaning out septic tanks. He's 84 and still works every day except Sundays. And he talked about the day he says he shot John Queen in self-defense. The FBI file showed the agency in 1965 had been told something important about Jasper Burchfield. The FBI, in their file, they say Mr. Burchfield was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Is that true?
BURCHFIELD: No, indeed. I never been in nothing like that. Not - no.
SHAPIRO: In the 1960's an informant told state police that Burchfield had been a Klansman. In one of the documents the sheriff's department for Adams County, that's the county around Natchez, names Burchfield as a suspected member of a gang of hooded men who at night were abducting black men, forcing them to take off their clothes and then whipping them. One of them, a funeral home director targeted because he registered black voters, was Archie Curtis.
BURCHFIELD: Never heard of him.
SHAPIRO: The FBI has its files that they thought maybe you were involved and he got - somebody beat him up.
BURCHFIELD: Beat him up?
SHAPIRO: Yeah, so that wasn't you?
BURCHFIELD: Heck no. I ain't never whipped a white man - a black man. Never in my life. I get along with blacks myself. I never had no trouble with no blacks. Not a one.
SHAPIRO: No arrests were ever made but the documents show that the sheriff's office considered Burchfield a primary suspect. At the time, there was growing pressure to shut down the Klan.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWS BROADCAST)
ANNOUNCER: Good evening. Three young civil rights workers disappeared in Mississippi on Sunday night near the central Mississippi town of Philadelphia about 50 miles northeast of Jackson.
SHAPIRO: The FBI had come full force into Mississippi. Bill Bob Williams was the agent in the FBI's new office in Natchez. The morning after Queen was shot he drove to Fayette. But the shooting wasn't the kind of case the FBI was interested in. It wasn't a planned and organized killing by the Klan.
BILLY BOB WILLIAMS: There didn't appear to be a hate crime. It just seemed to be that this was a confrontation between two men.
SHAPIRO: It would take another 43 years before the FBI opened the Queen case, along with more than 100 others it called racially-motivated unsolved killings from the civil rights era. In 2009, FBI agents interviewed Burchfield and Burchfield's sister, Delores Mullins. She was 14 in 1965 and in the backseat of the car when her brother, who was then 36, drove up to the icehouse. She declined to speak to NPR but FBI documents show that Mullins, like her brother, said John Queen pulled a gun first.
But then contradicting her brother, Mullins told the FBI that Queen never shot his gun because it jammed. The FBI then asked her to take a lie detector test. She refused on the advice of her attorney. And that's where the FBI stopped its investigation.
ADAM LEE: While we have not yet closed this tragic case and thus cannot comment on the specifics of the investigation, we currently lack sufficient evidence to conclusively disprove the subject's claim of self defense.
SHAPIRO: Adam Lee, with the FBI Civil Rights Section, read a prepared statement. He said he cannot discuss the Queen investigation because it is still open. As NPR talked to witnesses, we ran into the same problems that face the FBI. After so many years, memories have clouded. Physical evidence is lost or was never collected. So we'll probably never know exactly what happened the day that John Queen, the paraplegic man who hopped on his hands, died.
But the Civil Rights movement was about to change Fayette and Queen's death was about to help tip the town's entrenched racial order upside down.
CHARLES EVERS: We're here to serve notice on all of those who have been so brutal to us in the past, that your day is gone.
SHAPIRO: Charles Evers was the NAACP's top official in Mississippi, a job he'd taken over after the assassination of his brother, Medgar. Less than three weeks after John Queen was killed, the leader of the NAACP in nearby Natchez turned the key to his Chevy and a bomb blew up. Charles Evers led protests. On the way from Jackson to Natchez, he drove Highway 61 through Fayette, right past the spot where John Queen died.
EVERS: And I found out that Fayette was predominantly Negro. Oh, wait a minute. We've got this here so what we can do, we get enough of us registered and voting, we can change all this and that's what I did. I started organizing from Natchez to Fayette.
SHAPIRO: In Jefferson County, which includes Fayette, blacks outnumbered whites three to one, but only one black person was registered to vote. In August of 1965, when John Queen died, it was too risky for black people to complain about it. But in December, just four months later, Evers led hundreds marching to demand jobs, the right to vote, and for basic respect, to be called Mr. and Mrs, not boy or girl, anymore.
LILLIE LEE HENDERSON: These black citizens in Jefferson County had reached a peak. That old cliche I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.
SHAPIRO: Lillie Lee Henderson was John Queen's great niece. She says his death was a tipping point. Just two days before Queen died, President Lyndon Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act. Now, blacks in Fayette registered to vote and just two years later, Early Lott, Sr. was elected the first black constable.
Lott said he ran for office because on the day he saw John Queen's blood running on Main Street, he vowed he'd change things in Fayette. His words are read here by his son, Early Lott, Jr.
EARLY LOTT JR.: (reading) That cripple had been killed because he felt the way I felt. He only tried to speak up for himself like a man, like a man.
SHAPIRO: By 1969, Charles Evers was elected mayor. On a Sunday afternoon, Shirley Cruel's family came to see her at a nursing home on Main Street in Fayette. In 1965, she was a high school dropout and unmarried mother. When things changed in Fayette, she got her GED, went to college and became a social worker. Shirley Cruel was John Queen's great niece.
SHIRLEY CRUEL: And I can say he was just a black man in the '60s and who cared about a black man in the '60s? No justice was given to him.
SHAPIRO: As Shirley Cruel talks, her 18-year-old grandson, Alvion Sampson, sits and listens with a look of astonishment on his face.
ALVION SAMPSON: At my old school, we did Mississippi history and we read about Medgar Evers and then read about Emmitt Till.
SHAPIRO: And did you ever know about the history in your own family?
SAMPSON: This is the first time I ever heard about it. The first time.
SHAPIRO: Shortly after this interview, Shirley Cruel died. And that's another reason why it's so important to know about these killings from the Civil Rights era, because after 50 years, relatives, witnesses and suspects are dying. That makes it hard to get to the truth in these cases but also easy to forget them. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.