Many Civil Rights-Era Cold Cases to Remain Unsolved

Many Civil Rights-Era Cold Cases to Remain Unsolved

The passage of time, legal limitations and lack of evidence prevent many civil rights-era murders from being solved, authorities say.

Published November 6, 2011

Following in the footsteps of luminaries such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., African-Americans marched toward peace, justice and equality during the modern civil rights movement.


Despite the triumphs achieved, the road was marked with dark shadows of violence—bombings, lynchings and other unspeakable atrocities that resulted in the reported deaths of more than a hundred people. Authorities have worked to bring justice or at least closure to surviving family members over the years. Sadly, they have determined the bulk of those cases will go unsolved.


In 2006, the Department of Justice launched its “Cold Case Initiative,” a comprehensive effort to investigate racially motivated murders that occurred before December 31, 1969. Under that initiative and the passage of the 2007 Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, the agency isolated 111 incidents involving 124 deaths and worked to uncover if prosecutions were still viable even as decades have passed. Nearly three dozen of those cases still remain open.


In some of those cases, all of the suspects are dead or they have been acquitted in the past and cannot legally be retried. In others, the agency can find no evidence that a crime was racially motivated or that the death resulted from foul play.


"Few, if any, of these cases will be prosecuted," the DOJ acknowledged in a 2010 report to Congress.


Although the pool of convicted killers may be small, the initiative has helped delivered some stunning convictions in the past two decades, including that of James Ford Seale in 2007. A federal jury in Jackson, Mississippi, convicted Seale, a reputed former Ku Klux Klansman, who many believed to be dead, of kidnapping and conspiracy in the torture and drowning of two Black teens in 1964.  Seale, then 72, was sentenced to three life terms. He later died in an Indiana prison on Aug. 2.



Written by Britt Middleton


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