In New South, a bid to redress old crimes

Today's prosecutors raise the priority of unsolved cases from the civil rights era.

During his law-school days in Alabama, Doug Jones remembers cutting classes to watch the 1977 trial of Ku Klux Klan member Robert Chambliss, also known as "Dynamite Bob."

Chambliss was convicted for a church bombing in Birmingham that killed four black girls. But Mr. Jones, like many Southerners who came of age in the civil rights era, always thought Dynamite Bob had not acted alone. Now a US attorney, Jones reopened the case and is set to try new suspects.

But his bid to put to rights an unrectified wrong from the tumultuous civil rights era is no solitary crusade. From Birmingham to dirt-poor Delta towns, a new generation of Southern officials is revisiting old cases in a belated effort to bring perpetrators of racial crimes to justice.

The renewed investigations are one more example of the South's gradual move to get beyond the racial divisiveness that defined the region for generations.

It's the story of the South "coming to terms with one of the darkest elements of its past," says Susan Glisson, director of the Center for Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. "It took a new type of lawyer, one who grew up during the civil rights movement, to see how wrong it was to let the guilty walk free."

While the US government is spearheading new prosecution of many of the old cases, local officials are involved, too. Just in the past year, several cases have been reopened or retried.

*In Washington Parish, La., a local prosecutor last year reopened the case of the 1965 shooting ambush of the first black deputy sheriffs there, Oneal Moore and Creed Rogers.

*In November, a jury in Mississippi's Humphreys County convicted three men of manslaughter in the 1970 murder of Rainey Pool, a sharecropper whom they beat and threw off a bridge into a river.

*Earlier this year, the FBI in Louisiana reopened an investigation into the deaths of two black men whose bodies were found in a swamp in 1964.

*In December, a US attorney in Jackson, Miss., reopened the 1966 murder of a plantation caretaker who was shot 16 times. Three Klansmen were accused of the murder; none was convicted.

Jones's case on the church-bombing resulted in the indictment last month of Bobby Frank Cherry and Tommy Blanton, two former Ku Klux Klansmen, on murder charges, nearly 37 years after the crime.

But the case that sparked the trend was the 1989 conviction of Byron De La Beckwith, who was finally tried for the murder of NAACP official Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963.

Since then, 18 civil-rights-era crimes have been examined in the Deep South. In those cases, 11 people have been arrested, five convictions have handed down by juries, and there's been one guilty plea, one mistrial, and one acquittal.

"It's part of a new South," says Jerry Russell, a Jackson Clarion-Legder reporter whose investigation of the Evers case led prosecutors to reopen it. "All of the prosecutors are young, white, and Southern, and when the civil rights movement took place, it didn't register with them until they got older," says Mr. Russell. "Now, they are horrified and want justice to occur. It took a generation to step past what happened in order to see clearly."

Over the years, Russell has investigated many of these crimes, including the death of Vernon Dahmer Sr., who was firebombed by the Klan in his Hattiesburg, Miss., house in 1966, and Freedom Summer volunteers whose bodies were pulled from an earthen dam in 1964.

The reopened cases are a testament to how much the legal and political climates have changed from 30 years ago. The Klan was a more powerful - and more violent - force than it is today, and many witnesses feared death or retaliation if they spoke out. Juries, which then were all white, often could not produce a verdict, stymied by jurors who felt they had to protect white Southerners even if they were guilty.

Prosecutors, too, sometimes worried about political suicide. Indeed, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, who tried the first Birmingham church-bombing case, lost political power as a result.

That has changed, and today some observers even see political gain - in the form of African-American votes - for those who prosecute these old cases.

"The politics have changed, and there is no reason not to get these cases to trial," says Mary Frances Berry, a history professor and current member of the US Civil Rights Commission.

But time is not on the side of the new breed of crusaders. Witnesses and suspects are aging. Evidence is vanishing. As a result, prosecutors are stepping up their efforts.

For Russell, each of the reopened cases is a sort of mini-Nuremberg trial. "It's very easy to see the sins of the Nazis, but it is difficult to see the sins of ourselves," he says. "That's why it is taking a new generation who isn't blinded by prejudices and or by the reality of what has gone on around them."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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