They sat at the front of the sanctuary at the First Baptist Church Decatur, discussing Civil Rights-era cold cases in fact and fiction as part of The AJC Decatur Book Festival. Without anyone saying a word about the Charleston shooting massacre in June at the Emanuel AME Church, that tragedy – and many others – hung over the room.
Greg Iles, a best-selling novelist whose last two books have become bestsellers while telling lightly fictionalized versions of a violent splinter cell of the KKK in Louisiana and Mississippi called the Silver Dollar Group, sat next to Stanley Nelson, editor of the Concordia (La.) Sentinel, a weekly newspaper that earned a Pulitzer nomination in 2011 in recognition of Nelson’s dogged reporting on an unsolved race murder in 1964. They were joined by Hank Klibanoff, an Emory University professor and co-author of a 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book on how the media reported on the Civil Rights movement (“The Race Beat”), and Brett Gadsden, associate professor of African American studies and history at Emory and, with Klibanoff, co-teacher of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Classes at Emory.
Gadsden is black; the rest of the panelists are middle-aged whites. Many of the pews were filled, a sign of intense interest driven by not just the Charleston shootings – which left nine members of a Bible study group dead, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator – but a number of cases of unarmed blacks killed by policemen. A 21-year-old South Carolina man, an avowed racist, faces accusations of hate crimes and murder in the Charleston church deaths. Emanuel AME is one of the oldest and most revered African American churches in the South and the nation.
The increased scrutiny on deaths among young black men started in 2012, when a neighborhood watch activist named George Zimmerman shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin after seeing Martin walking through a Florida neighborhood. Zimmerman called the police and told them Martin looked suspicious. Zimmerman confronted Martin, defying what police told him by phone, and shot Martin. A jury acquitted Zimmerman of murder in 2013.
In 2014 and 2015, police confrontations and shootings of unarmed black men stirred protests, resentment, and controversy. Each case involved different circumstances, but tragic incidents in Ferguson, Mo.; Staten Island, N.Y.; Baltimore; Cleveland; and North Charleston, S.C., made household names of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, 12-year-old Tamir Rice and Walter Scott, all of whom died.
Klibanoff and Gadsden, the Emory professors who teach a class that involves students in researching cold cases in Georgia, said the pop-culture aspects of forensic crime investigation (think “CSI”) and the newfound emphasis on racial injustice seem to have galvanized interest.
“I think many of our students are tied in to newsfeeds and social media and I think the recent killings have resonated,” Gadsden said. “And so they come in with questions about police brutality, for example. And then we expose them to this historical problem and we’re able to tap into that. The challenge working with our students is we’re not trying to say what happened back then is the same as what’s happening right now, but to help them develop the kind of investigatory and storytelling skills they need. To give historical depth and dimension.”
Klibanoff and Gadsden echoed the findings of Nelson, who, in 2007, began reporting on the forgotten murder of Frank Morris, a 51-year-old black man who owned a shoe store in Ferriday, La.
“These are all called Civil Rights cold cases,” Klibanoff said. “Really, they should all be called Civil Rights-era cold cases. You should not leave here with the impression that the victims were all Civil Rights activists who were putting themselves at-risk.… [One victim’s offense] was he wanted to have a really nice car.”
Two Klansmen set fire to the small-town Louisiana shoe store while Morris slept in the back in December 1964. He died from severe burns several days later in the hospital and never revealed the names of his killers.
Nelson’s reporting prompted the FBI to re-open the case. He noticed Morris’s name in 2007 on a list of unsolved Civil Rights-era murders. Nelson had never heard of Morris or the murder case. As he said in Georgia during the panel discussion, Nelson figured he would write a story or two and go on to something else.
Instead, Frank Morris’s granddaughter, Rosa Morris Williams, who was 12 when her grandfather was murdered, saw Nelson’s story and called him. Rosa Williams, who had long since moved to Las Vegas, told Nelson his story, which “was 764 words, a fairly short story – she said, ‘I’ve learned more [from that] than I’ve known in my life.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ She said, ‘I’ve spent my life praying maybe they would look at this case again.’”
Nelson committed then to do everything possible to learn the truth, a pursuit aided by professors and students from the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University and others. Nelson has written more than 200 stories about the Morris case in eight years, piling up incremental gains all along, finding clues and developing leads and continuing to fill in the blanks.
The Morris case is one of three Nelson has been reporting on and examining for much of the past decade.
Morris wasn’t a Civil Rights activist. His case is similar to that of James Brazier, a 31-year-old black Georgia man killed by police in 1958, in part, because of his economic status. Brazier, working several jobs, drove a new Chevrolet Impala, a sign of success local policemen came to resent. Brazier’s cold case has been investigated by Emory students under the guidance of Klibanoff and Gadsden.
Nelson’s reporting inspired Iles, who lives in nearby Natchez, Mississippi. After the reporter and novelist met, Iles was inspired to include much of Nelson’s real-life findings, slightly altered and fictionalized, in an ongoing trilogy of novels. The third and final book, “Unwritten Laws,” is tentatively scheduled to be published in 2017.
Black citizens’ deaths involving policemen and supremacist groups represent a prominent but small slice of a larger problem. This month, Edward Conlon, a former NYPD detective in the Bronx, noted the troubling, and, at times, overlooked broader trends.
Conlon, in an analysis of the racial tensions between police and minorities written for The Wall Street Journal, noted that, since 2001, “more than 90,000 black men in the U.S. have been killed by other black men. With fatalities on this scale, the term epidemic is not a metaphor.”
Iles, unprompted, made a similar argument during the panel discussion Saturday at the Georgia book festival.
“There’s no question there’s a pattern of police bias, police brutality against males, disparities in sentencing, disparities in resources that are available to black defendants – no question, that extends from [long ago] till now,” he said. “But, it’s a terrible, tragic irony that simultaneous with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement [and] exposure of all this systemic and structural racism in law enforcement, you have death tolls and shooting tolls in places like Chicago, where 60 and 70 black males are shot by each other over a single weekend. Over three weeks, you’ve got more dead black kids than the Ku Klux Klan killed in 10 years from 1960 to 1970. That’s an uncomfortable truth.… It’s not enough to just deal with the half that gets caught on video.”