Home News Stories 2007 February Reviewing Civil Rights Cold Cases

Reviewing Civil Rights Cold Cases

Civil Rights
FBI Announces Partnership in Reviewing Cold Cases

02/27/07

Director Robert S. Mueller was joined by civil rights leaders, including John H. Jackson, chief policy officer of the NAACP, at a press conference Tuesday at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.
Director Robert S. Mueller was joined by
civil rights leaders, including John H.
Jackson, chief policy officer of the NAACP,
at a press conference Tuesday at the
Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

Building on a program launched a year ago, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice announced new partnerships with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Urban League to investigate aging unsolved violent crimes from the Civil Rights era.

“We will do everything we can to close those cases and to close this dark chapter in our nation’s history,” FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said Tuesday, appearing with representatives from the three civil rights organizations and with U.S. Attorney General Alberto S. Gonzales. “Protecting the civil rights of all Americans is one of the FBI’s highest missions, whether the violations occurred four days ago or 40 years ago,” Mueller said.

We launched a program in February last year to identify deadly hate crimes that occurred before 1969 and that remained unsolved. Each of our 56 field offices pored over these so-called “cold cases” to see how many could realistically be pursued.

We identified roughly 100 cold cases that merit further investigation, and have prioritized the top dozen or so cases, Mueller said. Generally, the FBI does not provide details about on-going investigations.

The director noted several recent successful prosecutions of old civil rights cases: the 2001 conviction of Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry for a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama; the 2003 conviction of Ernest Avants for the 1966 murder of Ben Chester White; and the 2005 conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for his role in the deaths of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. He also mentioned the recent indictment of former Klansman James Ford Seale.

“These successes have restored our hope and renewed our resolve,” Mueller said.

The FBI will not be able to investigate all of the unsolved civil rights cases; there may be no federal jurisdiction in some, for example. In others, evidence and witnesses may be scarce or nonexistent.

“Through these expanded lines of communication we hope we can bring closure to some of these cases,” said Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. “If we are to succeed we must work as a team, and the help of our partners will be crucial as we continue to search for the evidence to help us close these cases. Their dedication to this cause has been tireless, and we are proud to work with them on this.”

Through the partnership, the civil rights organizations will continue to feed us information about cases they feel merit another look—or that we may have overlooked in the past.

Witnesses who were once terrified to testify or report a crime are now willing to step forward and help. We can also use forensic analysis and technology that didn’t exist 40 years ago to solve cases that once looked unsolvable.

“We cannot turn back the clock. We cannot right these wrongs. But we can try to bring a measure of justice to those who remain,” Mueller said.

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