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Civil Rights Era Murders: Joint FBI/DOJ Initiative Yields Results

 

   
   

 

 

 

 

Group of people watching a cross burn. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Hate crimes—especially murder—are one of our top investigative priorities, even if they occurred half a century ago.

That’s why we established our Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative, focusing on racially-motivated killings from the civil rights era. In addition to seeking justice for victims, we were also seeking closure for victims’ families, many of whom had no idea what had really happened to their loved ones.

Our initiative began in February 2006, when we reached out to local and state authorities, civic organizations, and community leaders around the country, looking for information on civil rights era racially-motivated murders that had never been solved or were not adequately investigated and prosecuted. Over time, we were able to identify 108 possible cases.

In February 2007, the FBI and the Department of Justice announced a partnership with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Urban League to help investigate these aging unsolved murders. At the time, Director Robert Mueller said, “We will do everything we can to close those cases and to close this dark chapter in our nation’s history.”

And in November of 2009, we made one last push—publicly announcing that we were looking for the next of kin in 34 cases to let families know what happened to their loved ones and to possibly obtain additional investigative information. 

All told, during the past four years, FBI agents from more than a dozen field offices—with the assistance of our law enforcement partners, communities, and the media—expended thousands of investigative hours doggedly tracking down witnesses, pursuing leads, pouring over old police records and court transcripts, and perhaps most importantly, locating family members who may have never known what happened to their loved one. 

The victims’ families contacted by our agents were very helpful—some even provided useful investigative information.

One of our case agents in the Jackson Field Office recalled meeting this past January with the elderly mother of a murder victim and interviewing the siblings: “As we sat and talked, and after they gave us names of other individuals who might have some knowledge of the incident, they told us they understood the limitations of investigating such an old case and thanked us for pursuing it.”

Since the initiative began:

  • Approximately half of the 108 cases involved deceased subjects, while 30 percent involved subjects who had already been prosecuted at the state level and 20 percent uncovered deaths that weren’t racially-motivated.
  • Three cold case investigations were referred for state prosecution, and the FBI is currently assisting in the prosecution of former state trooper.
  • The next of kin in 11 additional cases were located following the November 2009 public announcement seeking family members in the 34 remaining cases.
  • The Department of Justice has closed eight cases, and will be closing an additional 18 as soon as the families of the victims have been notified. (Other closures and family notifications will follow.)

And while our initial effort is wrapping up, the FBI will always be looking for information on other possible racially-motivated murders from the civil rights era. Contact your local field office if you believe you have knowledge of such a crime.

 

Washington D.C.
FBI National Press Office
(202) 324-3691



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