Feds turn up heat to solve cold cases of civil rights days

Changing attitudes in the South and old wiretaps are helping the FBI reexamine nearly 100 unsolved crimes.

By , Staff writer

As he treks across the Dixie roads he traveled as a young FBI agent in the mid-1960s, Jim Ingram gets a similar question from many people about his quest to solve murder cases dating back to the civil rights era.

"We say, 'Look, a law has been broken, and we're committed,'" says Mr. Ingram, who came out of retirement at the FBI's request. "Then they say, 'Why are you doing this now?' Ingram answers: "Because it was not carried to its final conclusion 40 years ago."

The US government recently announced that it is reexamining nearly 100 such cold cases – an effort that's being helped by changing attitudes of law enforcement and the public in the South, even among former supremacists

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"These days, people see that it was wrong," says Ingram, "and that if it was their families, they'd want us to solve these cases."

But circumstances were different during the civil rights era. "In the 1960s ... there were Klan members in law enforcement, and it was a direct pipeline back to the very people they were investigating," says former US Attorney Doug Jones, who brought two Ku Klux Klan members to trial in 2002 for a 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls in Birmingham, Ala. "Today, people are coming forward to assist."

In one case, kidnapping and conspiracy charges were brought in January against reputed Klansman James Ford Seale because one of Mr. Seale's confidantes decided to talk to Ingram. Seale was allegedly involved in the killings of two black men in 1964.

Most of the cold cases the FBI will consider reopening hail from Mississippi. Several others include:

• the 1968 "Orangeburg Massacre" at South Carolina State University where state police shot and killed three student protesters;

• the 1967 shooting death of Carrie Brumfield, whose body was found on a rural Louisiana road;

• the 1957 murder of Willie Joe Sanford, whose body was fished out of a creek in Hawkinsville, Ga.;

• the 1946 killing of a black couple, including a pregnant woman, who were pulled out of a car in Monroe, Ga., and dragged down a wagon trail before being shot in front of 200 people.

"Many murders during the civil rights era were not fully investigated, were covered up or were misidentified as accidental death or disappearance. Many trails ran cold," FBI Director Robert Mueller said in a Feb. 26 news conference.

Investigations have made progress in part because of the recent cooperation between federal and local law enforcement officers on crimes involving drugs and weapons.

What's more, investigators digging into old FBI files have found a surprising degree of detail. They've uncovered wiretaps that had not been revealed earlier because of criticism of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's aggressive investigatory techniques at the time, including wiretapping people without warrants.

But it took recent successful prosecutions to jump-start the broader investigation, Mr. Jones says. Since 1989, federal and local authorities in seven states have arrested 28 people and convicted 22 of them for involvement in 29 civil rights era killings. Those prosecutions, mostly in Mississippi and Alabama, have "proved that you can take old evidence and repackage it in a way that strikes at the heart of juries today," he says.

Societal changes have helped significantly, too, experts say. Many segregationist viewpoints have died with the previous generation or mellowed with age as fewer Southerners see a problem with blacks and whites dating and intermarrying. And in hindsight, many see that the biblical justification for violence, often used by the KKK, was misguided. Meanwhile, blacks in the South cite fewer concerns about discrimination than blacks in other regions by a 31 percent to 20 percent margin, according to a 2003 Pew Research Center study.

Beyond the South, crimes from the civil rights period are getting new public attention. This year, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut and Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia reintroduced the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which would authorize $11.5 million to create a federal civil rights crimes unit. And a symposium, "Solving the Crimes of the Civil Rights Era" at Harvard University, is scheduled for April 27 and 28.

A list of 74 unresolved killings

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights firm in Montgomery, Ala., has handed over to the FBI a list of 74 unresolved killings, many involving white police officers who allegedly shot or beat to death black victims. The FBI is considering which ones to investigate further.

Although only a handful may be solved, they could serve as proxies for those cases that will be closed forever, says Richard Cohen, president of the SPLC.

"The families are owed one last real college try where we turn over every stone and look behind every corner," says Mr. Cohen.

For many families, it would help the healing process. Charles Robinson says the system failed his brother, Freddie, whose mysterious death on Edisto Island, S.C., in 1960 caused even his grandmother to urge police to shut the case in fear of retribution from "white folks." At the time, the coroner, who was white, called his death an accident.

The Robinson family remains convinced that Freddie was killed, perhaps by local fishermen, because he liked to teach dance moves to white girls on the island. The FBI is considering taking up the case.

"Just the fact that someone took the time to look into [his death], that would make me feel better," says Mr. Robinson. "If it opens eyes for white people and black folks, too, that would be a great thing, and just to say, 'We didn't forget about you, Freddie.' "

Concerns about reopening cases

But some family members are still concerned about retribution. When Anna Ruth Montgomery talks about the death of her mom, Mattie Greene, in a 1960 explosion in the narrow-pathed black section of Ringgold, Ga., she questions whether learning the truth could come back to harm her.

"I don't know who they [the perpetrators] are, but they know who I am," says Ms. Montgomery. "I want this investigation to happen, but, at the same time, if they can't solve it, why go into it?" Her mother's death is another case the FBI may reopen.

To be sure, some say the federal effort comes too late – the evidence has only gotten older, and many suspects are deceased. FBI agents still meet resistance, among both victims and those who took part in the turmoil.

But eventually most see the light, says Ingram. "It's like pulling a tooth; it's painful to these people," he says. "But you keep going back, and they eventually say, 'I remember now.' "

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