NEW YORK - The family of Louis Allen is convinced a former sheriff had a hand in his 1964 murder. The FBI had enough interest in the sheriff to try to get the former lawman to take a lie detector test that he refused. But Daniel Jones, the former sheriff, denies he had anything to do with the 47-yr.-old racial murder some credit with sparking the famous “Freedom Summer” civil rights campaign. It happened in Liberty, Miss., where Steve Kroft went during an 18-month investigation into Allen’s unsolved murder that will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES this Sunday.
Allen, a black WWII veteran who helped civil rights workers, was shot to death just before he could move away from Liberty. He wanted to escape the harassment and threats he endured for talking to the FBI about witnessing the murder of a black civil rights volunteer. Sheriff Jones investigated Allen’s murder; he found no suspects.
60 MINUTES approached Jones on his farm with a hidden camera. In a cordial conversation, the former sheriff said there was no bad blood between him and the victim, that he had investigated it and knew Allen was murdered, but he did not want to discuss it further. He did answer more of Kroft’s questions, however. Was he in the Ku Klux Klan? “I take the Fifth on that,” he replies. Could he look Kroft in the eye and say he had nothing to do with the murder? “No sir, I wasn’t involved in it,” he says. Told he could clear the whole thing up by taking a lie detector test, Jones tells Kroft, “Well, then it ain’t getting cleared up.”
The FBI says it hopes to clear up the Allen case, and 100 more like it, with a project it calls the “Cold Case Initiative.” The idea is to re-investigate unsolved murders from the civil rights era, and according to the FBI, Allen’s is one of the most promising. That’s because there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence pointing to Jones. Chief among that evidence is a tape-recorded interview with a Liberty resident named Alfred Knox, who told a Southern historian named Plater Robinson that his son-in-law, Archie Weatherspoon, saw Jones kill Allen. Neither Knox nor Witherspoon, both dead now, ever told law enforcement what they knew, says Robinson.
“The theory that Sheriff Jones killed Louis Allen has been in the public domain for quite some time,” says Cynthia Deitle of the FBI’s Civil Rights Division, who headed up the Cold Case Initiative until a few weeks ago. “The FBI would be remiss in our duties if we did not pursue that theory,” Deitle says. Watch an excerpt.
It’s no theory to Allen’s son, Hank, who found his father’s body. He says he witnessed Jones repeated harassment of his father. On one occasion, he said he watched Jones break his father’s jaw with a flashlight. After Louis Allen was murdered, Hank Allen says, “[Jones] told my mom, that if Louis had just shut his mouth that he wouldn’t be laying there on the ground.” Asked by Kroft whether he believes Jones killed his father, Allen replies, “Yes, indeed…If he didn’t do it, he was the entrepreneur of it.”
Kroft went to the Liberty drugstore to ask about the murder. There he found Charles Ravencraft, who was vice president of “Americans for the Preservation of the White Race,” a Ku Klux Klan front group, at the time of Allen’s murder. Kroft asked Ravencraft if the KKK was around at the time of Allen’s murder. “Sure. They were here,” he replies, but when asked whether he was a member, he tells Kroft, “It wouldn’t a been a Klan if you done tell everybody what your business was.”
Ravencraft said he had no idea who killed Allen, but gave this opinion of him: “He lived a lot longer than I thought he’d a lived…he was a little overbearing. I don’t think civil rights had anything to do with it.” But another man in the drugstore with Ravencraft, Winbourne Sullivan, says, “I think there are people who know what happened and who did it…but they’re not willing to talk about it…You’ll never find out.”
The FBI’s Deitle, who keeps a photo of Allen on her desk, agrees with Sullivan that someone knows something. She has investigated the murder recently and come up empty, mostly because nobody was willing to talk about it. But she still has hope and determination. “The case bothers me. I feel like we failed, and not just the FBI, but law enforcement,” says Deitle.