The Cold Cases of the Jim Crow Era
The New York Times August 28, 2015
In March 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter from a desperate mother. Her son, who was black, had been killed two years earlier, his body pulled from a river near Pickens, Miss.
“I am sending a contract in regards to the lynching of my son Willie Jack Heggard,” wrote Jane Heggard. “I have tried every way to have a trial, but no lawyer will accept the case, because a white man killed an innocent man.”
Despite her plea, it is unlikely we will ever know who killed Ms. Heggard’s son. Roosevelt’s assistant attorney general said it was up to the state of Mississippi, which apparently failed to investigate the crime. Like the thousands of Latin American “desaparecidos” who were terrorized in the 1970s and ’80s, Willie Jack Heggard is among America’s “disappeared,” one of hundreds of black Americans who were victims of racial violence from 1930 to 1960.
Our opportunity to capture their stories — and an important part of our nation’s history — is quickly vanishing as memories fade, witnesses die and evidence disappears. Time is running out to achieve some measure of justice.
For the past seven years, we have traveled throughout the South to document these cold cases. Many of the documents — sworn statements, court transcripts and coroners’ reports — are stored in dusty courthouses, threatened by fires, floods and rodents. Compared with the relatively robust archive on lynchings between 1882 and 1930, researchers have not fully explored the social and political costs of racial violence during the 30 years before 1960.
In 2008, Congress acknowledged this gap in our historical knowledge and passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, named for the 14-year-old boy who was pulled from his bed in Mississippi on Aug. 28, 1955, tortured and thrown in the Tallahatchie River. His case has not been fully resolved, although his killers confessed to a magazine in exchange for $4,000. The Emmett Till act authorizes the Department of Justice to coordinate with local authorities and investigate racially motivated homicides that occurred before 1970.
The problem is, the act has not been adequately funded, and its narrow focus on viable prosecutions limits its efficacy. Many homicides can no longer be prosecuted. In some cases, the government has limited federal jurisdiction. In others, witnesses and perpetrators have died. This year, the Department of Justice reported that it had completed just 105 investigations and three prosecutions over the past several years.
Clearly, the federal government needs to expand the act’s focus. Even if they are largely symbolic, prosecutions themselves are a form of truth telling, and require local governments who often ignored or sanctioned the killings to help re-examine this history.
In addition, prosecutions should be considered alongside remedies like truth commissions, restitution and official apologies which acknowledge that these murders were part of a pattern of intimidation against entire communities, intended to stifle full citizenship. Finally, along with better funding for the Till act, President Obama and Congress should establish an initiative to collect oral histories from this period.
It wouldn’t be the first time the federal government has undertaken a large oral history project. From 1936 to 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project conducted over 2,300 interviews with elderly former slaves. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 funded oral histories and gave reparations to Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. In 2000, Congress created the Veterans History Project so Americans could “better understand the realities of war.”
And several states — including North Carolina, Oklahoma and Florida — have already sponsored commissions on race riots before 1930 that attempted to assess the long-term impact of the murders, looting, arson and other property damage that ruined thriving African-American communities. Some recommended monetary reparations, economic redevelopment or commemorative monuments. Not all of the solutions were implemented, but the work itself was a significant step forward.
Some countries are confronting shameful episodes in their histories that had been intentionally ignored. In 2007, Spain passed the Law of Historical Memory to recognize those who suffered under Franco, which has supported the exhumation of graves from that era. In June, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the decades-long abuse of aboriginal children in residential schools “cultural genocide.”
A full accounting of the past may evoke shame, pain and impulses to remember and forget. But an acknowledgment that this legacy of violence still haunts African-American communities may foster more productive conversations and help generate trust in our legal system.
Emmett Till, who was killed 60 years ago today, is a victim whose story we know. His name endures because his mother “wanted the world to see what they did.” His memory beckons us to learn the fate of hundreds of others, like Willie Jack Heggard. We must find America’s disappeared, learn their stories and allow them to live in our history.