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Unsolved and overlooked murders: Investigating cold cases of the civil rights era

This is a photograph of Emmitt Till taken in Chicago about six months before he was killed in 1955 while visiting Mississippi. The Justice Department announced May 10, 2004, that it was reopening the investigation of Till’s death, which was a catalyst for the civil rights movement. (Till family photo via Associated Press)

On the night of Oct. 22, 1957, two white men arrived at the home of Rogers Hamilton, a black teenager who lived in Alabama. They stood outside his house and called his name. Rogers’s mother heard them and woke her son, who then went outside. The mother looked out the window as she saw the men order her son into a truck. She followed the truck down a road. When it stopped, the mother said, she saw clearly what happened next.

They pulled her son out of the truck and shot him in the head.

The mother, Beatrice Hamilton, reported the shooting to the farmer for whom she worked. He reported it to the Lowndes County sheriff’s office. The sheriff investigated and concluded that the mother could not have possibly seen what she saw.

No one was ever arrested in the case.

Sixty years later, the killing of Rogers Hamilton remains unsolved.

His case is one of dozens of “cold case” files being investigated as part of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016, an expansion of a law passed in 2007.

After the act was signed, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sent to the FBI and the Justice Department a list of 74 cold cases of black people allegedly killed by white people between 1952 and 1968, in “violent circumstances that may have been racially motivated.” Most of the homicides occurred in Mississippi, where 32 people were killed. Others were in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

“We refer to them as ‘The Forgotten,’ ” said Lecia Brooks, director of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., which honors 41 people who died in the struggle for equality during the civil rights movement. The memorial was dedicated in 1989.

“The Forgotten” are part of a display at the Civil Rights Memorial Center, but were not engraved in the memorial at that time because there was not enough information surrounding their killings when the memorial was finished.

After initial passage of the act, the 56 FBI field offices searched cold case files “to identify incidents which might be ripe for investigation,” SPLC said. “Since February of 2007, the FBI and the Division have partnered with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and the National Urban League to identify additional cases for investigation and to solicit their help.”

The legislation was the result of the work of Alvin Sykes, who requested a coordinated effort by federal agencies to investigate cold cases. The act was named after Emmett Till, who was 14 when he was killed in 1955 in Mississippi. Two white men accused in his death were acquitted by an all-white jury. The men later admitted in Look magazine that they had killed Till.

Nearly 60 years later, Till’s accuser, Carolyn Bryant Donham, revealed she lied. She told Timothy B. Tyson, a professor at Duke University, who wrote the book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” the part about Till grabbing her and being sexually crude to her “was not true.”

Investigators are hoping to unearth evidence in other cases of racially motivated killings across the South in the 1950s and 1960s.

“The investigations are very important when you consider the reconciliation process in addressing many of these crimes,” said Joseph E. Williams, operations coordinator for the Civil Rights Memorial. “It’s important for the family. Many of these people, if their loved ones went missing and they don’t have information, it’s disheartening. They have to live with that for decades. They have to tell generations in their family they don’t know what happened.”

It’s important, Williams said, to bring closure to the families. “We will continue to push the [Freedom of Information Act] requests to paint a full picture of what happened to those individuals,” Williams said.

Other “Forgotten” cold cases opened after the Emmett Till Act passed include:

Thad Christian, a 57-year-old father of seven, who was walking home from fishing when he was fatally shot by a white man, Robert Haynes, on Aug. 28, 1965. A headline in “The Anniston Star” newspaper reported, “Shot Kills Negro; White Man Jailed.”

The killing occurred in Jacksonville, Ala., where Christian and his friend Shelly Kirby were fishing at a creek.

“Haynes, who lived 300 yards away, drove down to the creek twice to demand Christian and Kirby leave,” Williams wrote. “The second time he arrived with a gun which he used to shoot and kill Christian.”

In 2009, the Justice Department interviewed Haynes’s son Arthur. “He recalled as a child hearing rumors that Haynes wanted to kill a black person, presuming that his father was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” the SPLC said.

Haynes pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to five years in an Alabama work camp. The Justice Department reported that Haynes died in 1968 in a car crash.

James Brazier, 31, of Dawson, Ga., who died April 25, 1958, of a fractured skull, five days after being beaten by two white police officers. Two white men were arrested for his murder, but there was no conviction in either arrest. One of the officers identified in the beating was W.B. Cherry.

A month later, Cherry fatally shot Willie Countryman on May 25, 1958, in Georgia.

The Justice Department reported that the shooting occurred about 1:30 a.m., when two Dawson police officers, Cherry and Robert Hancock, went into Countryman’s yard to investigate a suspicious noise.

“The subjects claimed that the victim jumped from behind a tree and cut Cherry’s cap with a knife, whereupon Cherry broke free and shot the victim,” the Justice Department reported. “Countryman sustained a gunshot wound to the stomach and was transported to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead upon arrival.”

Paul Guihard, a 30-year-old white French reporter for the New York-based France Presse Agency covering James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi, was killed on Sept. 30, 1962. It was reported that Guihard was killed by a gunshot from a white mob of segregationists. Guihard’s name is listed on the Civil Rights Memorial. His case was reopened under the Till Act, but has since been closed.

Andrew Lee Anderson, 16, who the Justice Department said was fatally shot on Aug. 5, 1963, in Crittenden County, Ark., after six county sheriff’s deputies and three “private citizens” chased him through a bean field. One of the private residents, Sam Burns, who carried a high-powered rifle, fired the shot that struck Anderson in his right leg. He died a few hours later in a Crittenden County hospital from shock caused by a hemorrhage. The death was ruled a justifiable homicide.

The Justice Department said that at a coroner’s inquest, a mother of an 8-year-old white girl testified she saw Anderson chasing after her daughter. The woman said that the girl told her later that Anderson “sexually assaulted her.”

Anderson’s relatives reported that he was trying to help the girl after a horse she was riding was startled. Anderson’s father told the NAACP in Pine Bluff, Ark., in 1963 that he thought his son’s civil rights had been violated.

Clarence Triggs, 24,was fatally shot by nightriders in Bogalusa, La., on July 30, 1966, after he received promotion to what some believed to be a “whites-only” job. “Triggs attended one or two [integration] marches in Bogalusa,” the SPLC said. “He was murdered less than two months after attending one of these demonstrations.” Triggs’ name is listed on the Civil Rights Memorial. His case was reopened under the Till Act, but has since been closed.

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