Civil-Rights Cold Case Investigations Stir Skepticism This past week, the government announced that it is going to re-open investigations of civil-rights era cold cases. Officials say they want to bring closure to victims' families, but some family members are skeptical.


Civil-Rights Cold Case Investigations Stir Skepticism

Civil-Rights Cold Case Investigations Stir Skepticism

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A few weeks before Selma, Ala., drew the nation's attention to the struggle for voting rights in the South, 26-year old Jimmy Lee Jackson was beaten and shot to death by white state troopers during a local demonstration in nearby Marion, Ala.

Jackson's death was a catalyst for the Selma to Montgomery voting-rights march. But for decades, the trooper who killed him was not identified, and no charges were ever brought.

Now, the case could be re-opened as part of a federal push to investigate unsolved crimes of the civil-rights era.

In recent years, federal officials have worked with state and local prosecutors to win convictions in six prominent cases, including the shooting death of Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, four black girls killed in a Birmingham church bombing, and three civil-rights workers killed in Neshoba County, Miss.

Authorities also re-opened the file on Emmett Till, the black teenager who was beaten and shot after whistling at a white woman in the Mississippi Delta. But that case came to an end this past week, when the local prosecutor announced that a grand jury failed to return an indictment.

But for every Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, there are a dozen less-known victims — people who were killed in what appeared to be racially-motivated crimes that, in some cases, were never fully investigated. Those responsible were never brought to justice.

Take, for instance, Mattie Green a domestic worker and mother of five. In 1960, a dynamite blast ripped through her home in Ringgold, Ga. Green was killed by falling debris.

Greene's daughter, Anna Ruth Montgomery, was 10 at the time of her mother's death.

The FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation looked into the bombing at the time, but it's not clear what the investigation concluded. Now Mattie Greene's name is on a list of about 100 cases the FBI says it will re-examine.

"You worry it's a little too late because so many of these cases are so old," says Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. "But the reality is better late than never."

The law center has compiled information on these cases over the years and recently handed over its files to the FBI. The list is called "The Forgotten."

"People wanted to forget about them," Cohen says. "Sometimes people ask, 'Why you want to dredge up all those old memories? Let's move on. Let's do something else.'"

But Cohen says that pursuing justice is essential to help right the wrongs of the past.

"We should continue to investigate other cases we can, because the sweet justice we get in those few cases will have to serve in those many cases where they'll never get prosecution or a conviction."

Having the federal government make these cases a priority might be key to getting them into court this many years later, according to former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones. Jones successfully prosecuted two former Ku Klux Klansmen in the Birmingham church bombing.

"What's the critical factor here is the government has said we're going to take a look at cases," Jones says, adding, "That's critical that they're willing to open up files to state and local law enforcement, where they've been very reluctant to do so for the past 50 years."

For decades, Jones says, the FBI was reluctant to share its information with state and local prosecutors. Sometimes it was for good reason — when the Klan had infiltrated local law enforcement, for example. Now, Jones says, federal law has made this kind of cooperation easier. And in many cases, the FBI files are the only investigative records that exist.

Mark Vukelich, chief of the FBI's Civil Rights Unit says agents will review the old files, and look for new leads.

"We can get cooperation from individuals who were scared to cooperate before because of their perception of community or law enforcement or the community at large," Vukelich says.

But he's realistic about the likely outcome in most of these cases.

"It would be important not to create false hope," he says. "These are difficult cases. Evidence lost. Witnesses have passed away. So to bring them to justice 30 to 40 years later is very difficult... Quite frankly, one of our goals is to bring closure to the family members."

In some cases, family member have been pressing for these investigations. But not all. For Mattie Greene's family, learning of the FBI list has been hard.

Montgomery lives just down the street from the house where her mother was killed in Ringgold, Ga. She says her family never talked much about the bombing because it was so painful. She doesn't understand why officials are looking into her mother's killing now.

"If they got evidence and can prove that someone did it, then sure, we want closure," Montgomery says. "But if they don't have evidence, let it rest like it has for the past 47 years."