“The movement is forever.”

On the night of Wednesday, June 17, nine African-Americans were gunned down during choir practice at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC.

On Thursday June 18, the interns of Cold Case Justice Initiative arrived at work and sat looking at one another. What was there to say? Some of us were confused, some of us were angry. We were all depressed, forlorn by the awful resonance of the past in the present. Everything that we have been working on this summer… all of the cases we have been investigating… it’s horrible. And yet, after the massacre of nine innocents last night, we were shown that the fight is not over. Not by a long shot. By no means do we live in a color-blind world. By no stretch of the imagination do we live in a post-racial society. If ever there was a nightmarish moment in America, it could not have been worse than Wednesday night. We did this to ourselves.

That morning, we talked about it some, but what had happened was still a shock. We tried to go on with business as usual. But it was impossible. It was impossible to evade the terrible implications: the persistence of hate, the magnitude of violence, the meaning of death for nothing. That is, nothing more than the arbitrary facts of skin color and identity.

The events of the week were altered by the fact of the shooting. We tried to go about our business, but everything was filtered by the shooting. It changed the meaning of what we were doing. While we thought we were looking back behind ourselves in an exercise of abstraction, our perspectives became as if autoscopic. We saw ourselves from outside of ourselves, rocked into our own moment, as the past exploded into the present, shot from the barrel of an assailant’s gun.

Tyrone Brooks and Eldrin Bell with students
Tyrone Brooks, former Georgia State Legislator and Eldrin Bell, former Atlanta Police Chief with CCJI-Atlanta students

On the preceding Friday, June 12, we had met with Tyrone Brooks in the Atlanta offices of the CCJI. Mr. Brooks is a former Georgia State Legislator and Field Director of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dressed in a tan button up and brown pants, Mr. Brooks appeared the wizened civil rights leader he is. He began by explaining to us that he has transitioned out of legislative politics to fully dedicate his time to advocate for the victims of the Moore’s Ford Massacre, a lynching of two young black couples that occurred in Munroe, GA in 1946. The tragic event marks the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, as it led President Truman to form the first ever Civil Rights Committee focused on the issue of lynching black people in the United States. Despite a year long FBI investigation into the Moore’s Ford Massacre, there were few indictments related to the event and no convictions ever occurred. In effect, the FBI investigation of the Moore’s Ford Massacre has, up until this point, entirely failed to achieve justice.

Mr. Brooks’ civil rights career began early, when as a 15-year-old student he was arrested for protesting in Covington, GA. A couple years later, in 1967, Tyrone Brooks came to Atlanta with the SCLC. Rev. Hosea Williams, Dr. King’s field general, brought him. Hosea Williams was a populist hero, conducting voter registration every summer, donning overalls at times, sporting suits at others. At 21, Tyrone Brooks found himself in front of Dr. King himself. Dr. King said, “I don’t do hiring. Take him to Abernathy. Put him on the pay roll.”

During his time with the SCLC, Mr. Brooks told us, he was in jail for 45 days as the field director of the organization. “Jailing for freedom is an honor,” he said, quoting Nelson Mandela.

Reflecting on 1968’s Poor People’s Campaign, Mr. Brooks told stories about the Mule Train to DC through the South starting in Marx, MS, then the poorest county in the U.S. “[On the train were] heroes and sheroes,” he explained. Initially, the Mule Train wasn’t allowed to pass through Georgia, and the riders spent time in jail for trying to do so. Once they were released and allowed to cross the state, they helped set up a tent city on the Mall in DC. They marched all over the Mall and went to jail there. Mr. Brooks thought it was remarkable that they were sentenced to time in jail by a black judge for marching without permit. It goes to show you that institutionalized racism can be personally mediated by anyone, no matter what the color of their skin.

Tyrone Brook was 22 years old, serving on the field staff of the SCLC when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis. Mr. Brooks was in Munroe “when the bullet hit him[MLK],” and once he heard the news, Mr. Brooks drove all night to join the SCLC leadership in Memphis. It was a chaotic time for the organization.

Reflecting on the changes between today and yesterday, in light of the cases being worked by the CCJI, Mr. Brooks quoted Joseph Lowry, the storied civil rights leader. “Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.” He grew quiet for a moment, looking down as if contemplating a vision of the past. Mr. Brooks looked up and concluded, “The movement is forever, the struggle continues.” We didn’t realize it then, but his words would seem prophetic in light of the coming week’s events.

Students at Atlanta History Center
CCJI student workers at Atlanta History Center

On Monday, June 15, blithely unaware of the attack that would transpire in the coming days, Alphonse and I headed downtown to the county court house. All the property records for Fulton County are located there. We wanted to find out who owned the property where the victim from our case was killed. After entering through the metal detectors and security guards stationed at the front door, we descended on the elevator to the bottom floor. An air of dust and decay reached our nostrils as we stepped through the double doors. We looked at each other and rolled our eyes. We remembered last week when the reverend had told us we were archaeologists of justice. Today, it really felt like we were archaeologists. Amongst the batty property lawyers roosted amongst the dusty tomes, we conducted our search of property records. Recent records are digitized, so we started on a computer, found the deed for our address, and worked backwards from there. At noon, we walked down the street to get out of the hot sun and eat lunch in the cool, cavernous cafeteria in the Secretary’s state building. They have a Chick-fil-A, so we gorged on fried chicken sandwiches and sweet tea. After lunch amongst the state employees, we returned to the tomes, and, after a couple hours, we tracked down the deed for our property the year when our victim was killed. We drove away victoriously. Later that afternoon, Alphonse also found the name of the officer who killed the victim in our case through an open records request. Monday was a productive day for our investigation.

On Tuesday, we filed records documenting all the work we’ve done so far, so that others can follow the trail when we finish our term with the project at the end of the summer. We still didn’t know what was coming.

On Wednesday, June 17, while the other students were away at the library, Professor McDonald told stories about interning for Robert Kennedy before law school, her transformation “from an armchair liberal to being arrested for civil rights protests,” and her time at Yale Law School. Alphonse then explained the experience of being the only black student in his section at Syracuse Law, where a fellow student, a white farm boy could say something, genuinely meant to be supportive but without understanding the racial significance of what he had said.

However, explanation is not justification. The violence of accidental racism in private education is common today, when the market value of diversity brings a small number of black students into contact with a large group of uncultured, insensitive white students. This is not an isolated event. Racism, accidental or otherwise, is culturally prevalent all across the country at higher-level educational institutions, especially those that are historically white.

Accidental racism shares its source with its more sinister sibling, intentional racism: the mother of America, white supremacy. The problem with our educational institutions today is that they pander to affirmative action while still allowing white supremacy to thrive ideologically. As writer Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic has suggested in “The Case for Reparations,” it is inadequate that modern reparations should find primary expression in higher education, because the legacy of black slavery in America is so far reaching, covering every facet and field of social life, extending far beyond the educational infrastructure. In essence, its not the white-farm-boy-turned-law-student’s fault that he mistakenly said something racist to Alphonse. The fault belongs to all of us, for allowing white supremacist views to continue saturating our culture, both in and outside the classroom. Free speech is one thing. Moral imperative is another. The fact that, as a community, we have allowed white supremacy to continue infecting our institutions and our personal lives led to the events of that night, when the nine innocents were shot to death in Charleston.

Mayor Elizabeth Wilson
Elizabeth Wilson, Mayor of Decatur,

Thursday afternoon, we met with Elizabeth Wilson, mayor of Decatur from 1993-1999, in our offices at Oakhurst Presbyterian. The day was hot, so we had the A/C on blast. Currently, Mayor Wilson is leading a courageous battle against the forces of gentrification in Decatur, what she called “a racist program.” Mayor Wilson is fighting specifically in the neighborhood surrounding the church where we work. When Alphonse introduced himself as living off Candler Road, she remarked mirthfully, “Oh, you are real local.”

Professor McDonald started off by introducing Mayor Wilson to our cases. “The families don’t know about our work,” she said, “or we don’t think they know. We have turned over 90 cases to the Georgia DOJ, but there’s been no movement… [Often, we see that] one cop was the killer, another was the detective, [and the whole thing was] hushed up; then [they] reversed roles on next case.” Sometimes, it feels like everybody was “in” on the racist killing of black men in Atlanta.

Mayor Wilson nodded in understanding. Then she told her story: “When I moved to Decatur in 1949, [I] moved from Greensboro, GA, 80 mile east of Atlanta… [In 1949,] the Klan, the Grand Wizard was here, residing in Stone Mountain. [They held] meetings in downtown Decatur. I lived in public housing downtown. [The Klan] paraded in the square. Some of us had become active with Dr. King and the student movement. So we went down to the square to see. Everything you hear is true. Costumes, racial hatred. Seems like that’s what they enjoyed…”

Mayor Wilson went on to explain her experience living at that time: “[I] could never go anywhere by myself. White men rape black women. [I was] scared my entire life growing up.”

Then, she elaborated on Klan operations. “The Klan headquarters was in Stone Mountain,” she told us. “At the foot of the Mountain was a black community. They [the Klan] tried to terrorize them [the blacks]… Later, the first black mayor [of Stone Mountain] bought the house where the Grand Wizard [had] lived.” We were puzzled by the irony. Mayor Wilson threw us a small smile in conciliation. “Venable ??was the Imperial Wizard,” she revealed. “[He had] one of the houses on the corner outside the courthouse. [He] had a black man sitting outside his office. [Venable would say,] ‘One of my best friends.’” It’s unbelievable hearing the manipulative ends the Klan went to further their racist pogrom.

Notably, Mayor Wilson explained to us that black officers could not arrest whites in Atlanta, but they could in Decatur.[1] Mayor Wilson reflected, “It always felt like they [the black police officers] were very nervous.”

She went on, “The area [was] in transition from white to black. We were trying to get to know each other. White flight began, and we were just trying to find a place to live… School populations rapidly changed. [The] Principal left. Neighborhoods gone from being all white to all black… Up until 1967, [there were] two black high schools.” After white flight occurred, the schools were all black.

On the racial profiling that made the Decatur police infamous and that still goes on today, Mayor Wilson said, “[There was] racial profiling. [There was] harassment. [The white police would say,] ‘Boy this,’ ‘Boy that.’ One lady had a seizure, [they assumed] she was drunk, [and] threw her in jail. But she was actually very ill. [She] didn’t [even] drink, and she died.” She told us a story we had heard before, about Dr. King being arrested in Decatur for riding in a car with a white woman on the Emory campus, on his way to the hospital with a broken arm. Ironically, both King’s wife and the woman’s husband had been in the car at the time. The story indicates the extent to which race determined policing outcomes, no matter the circumstance.

Mayor Wilson then circled back to the issue of public schooling in Decatur in the 1960s within the context of a rapidly changing racial dynamic. By 1962, Wilson had become highly involved in the community. She was active in the Wheat Street and Ebenezer Baptist Church communities, two historically engaged black communities located off Auburn Avenue.[2] Through community protest, Decatur maintained the schools’ PTA despite the consistent opposition of principals and administrators.

Mayor Wilson was insistent that widespread prejudice and active discrimination of blacks defined the time. When employers found out that men had joined the NAACP, they were fired.

There were some good times, like when baseball legend Jackie Robinson came to Decatur in 1961 to help register people to vote and to register people in the NAACP. But the good was tempered with the bad, as Mayor Wilson remembered that people were generally afraid to come through Decatur in the 1960s, when there was no highway 285 running East-West to travel across town.

Mayor Wilson remembered that, in Atlanta during the 1960s, the segregation was extreme, as symbolized by the white and black neighborhoods separated by a wall in between at Peyton Road in Southwest Atlanta, something resembling East and West Berlin following World War II. She remembered parks for blacks only. “[We] could not go to Piedmont Park,” she said.

When we asked Mayor Wilson about the connection between the police and the Klan in the 1960s, she paused to think for a moment. “Some were members, and if not members, they acted like it. The whole department, they all looked the same and behaved the same. From the chief to the rookies.”

She paused again and looked down, thinking. When she raised her head again, a look of profound intensity burned in her eyes. “We were very aware of everything going on, especially police harassment, police brutality.” She paused. It looked like she would continue, but she didn’t. She looked off, as if something had carried her away.

Professor McDonald took the chance to tie it all back to the CCJI’s mission. “There’re connections between what’s happening now at the AME church and what happened then. We need to cleanse those wounds… Students then [were] pushing for name tags on cops, [and] students now [are] pushing for cameras.”

Mayor Wilson took up this theme of the past in the present. “I see some change in attitudes…” She grew silent. Ultimately, she concluded, “The fight is still going, but its not near as bad as it was.”

Though she might be right, the day after the massacre at the AME church in Charleston, things felt unspeakably bad. The significance of the past in the present has defined our summer. Then and now. Many people would have us believe, then, not now. But after the mass shooting, now feels exactly like then. Without justice for then, how can we expect to prevent tragedy now?

Charleston made us realize the importance of what we are doing, the importance of making a record and impressing upon the larger community the nature of what has happened. Maybe, by making a record, by educating people about the tragedies that have occurred, by advocating for the families of the victims, we can prevent more from occurring in the future. Maybe… maybe there is nothing that can be done. But we refuse to accept defeat. Justice delayed will not be justice denied. We will fight to the end. To alleviate the injustices of the past, to address the wrongs of the present. The memory of the nine at the AME church in Charleston demands nothing less.


[1] This seemed interesting in light of what Civil Rights attorney Davis had told us the week before, that neither Jewish nor Black attorneys were permitted to join the Decatur bar until 1985. Though ever present, it seems like the racism infecting the institutions in Decatur was complex, operating in different ways in different sectors of the community at different times.

[2] Both Wheat Street Baptist Church and the Ebenezer Baptist Church comprise politically active communities today, and the CCJI is involved with both.

We Have Not Forgotten & We Won’t Stop the Fight

People from all backgrounds gather at the Georgia State Capitol
People from all backgrounds gather at Georgia State Capitol to rally in support of victims gunned down June 17

In the wake of the tragic events that took place on the night of Wednesday, June 17, 2015 in Charleston, SC, the citizens in Atlanta were aware and fired up. In the midst of the hurt, anger, and confusion caused by the loss of 9 Black angels in their place of worship, several Atlanta activists and organizations gathered at the steps of the Georgia State Capitol building on Friday night, June 19, 2015, and rallied together for the victims of the Charleston, SC church shooting. The killer stated his motive was to start a race war, but that is far from what he did. People of all races and ages came together, stronger than ever before, and supported each other in the fight for justice, with the common goal in mind that White Supremacy must be stopped and that #BlackLivesMatter.

Young people were asked to come up on the steps and call out the names of the ancestors we lost in the tragic shooting a few days ago. I was one of the 9 people who called out the names of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson.

People read names of victims killed in Charleston church shooting
Young people read aloud names of the nine victims killed in the Emanuel AME Church shooting

After each name, we said Ashe to command power and authority, and to affirm that we were remembering each of these individuals. After we lifted up their names in remembrance, we closed our eyes and prayed for the families of the victims, for the state of our nation, and for strength as we continue in the fight for justice.

From Charleston to Atlanta, we raised our voices in solidarity and unity; For justice and hope, we linked arms and marched the mile from the steps of the Georgia State Capitol to the sanctity of Big Bethel A.M.E. Church. As we marched we lifted up our voices, sang hymns, and chanted for freedom. We boldly declared, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” As we exclaimed “You can’t stop the revolution!” I felt empowered. When we sang, “Ain’t gonna let white supremacy turn me around,” I felt a sense of togetherness and determination to not only want a change, but to fight for it. We ended our march at Big Bethel singing “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.” We had service, sang songs, and prayed together. We heard from NAACP Georgia President Francys Johnson who reminded us that this country is in a dangerous condition, and that if we do not address what happened in South Carolina, we are on a course of collision.

In the words of State Senator Vincent Fort, “Today is for mourning. Tomorrow is for the fight.”

Marchers walk arm in arm from the steps of the Georgia State Capitol to Big Bethel A.M.E. Church

Relecting on Independence Day

National Archives Museum Reflection
by Ibrahim Lawton

As I looked at the Constitution, the first thing that came to my mind was that this document, that is supposed to guarantee certain rights and freedoms, was never intended to include me in it. I thought about the strides that many Black men and women have taken to help give Black people the rights that we as humans also deserve. As a future lawyer, these are the documents that I must learn to use to my advantage in dismantling White supremacy and achieving social justice. I believe it is important that I understand the history of these documents to help continue on the path many Black leaders have begun, advocated for and died for.

Two of the most successful Black lawyers that were able to use the law to their advantage in both politics and business were Thurgood Marshall and Reginald Lewis. Thurgood Marshall grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and overcame the obstacles of living in an era that hated and killed Black people for any reason to be deemed by society as reasonable allowing him to become the most influential lawyer of his time. Reginald Lewis also overcame the struggles of growing up as a poor Black child from Baltimore with nothing, to becoming the first Black billionaire in America. I understand that the success of these Black men, as well as other Black men and women, was far from easy. Like other successful African Americans, they were masters at their crafts, specifically in areas of business and law. They understood and studied how white supremacy functioned specifically in their areas of expertise, then learned ways how to dismantle and overcome the obstacles they faced.  The success that these two men had, while being under the scrutiny of a white supremacist system, show me that it is possible to maneuver and advocate successfully in America for the masses of Black people and for themselves individually. I believe that by continuing to study history, the law, and how others were able to use these tools to help liberate Black people, I can pick up the torch and continue to carry it.

It is appalling to me that even after centuries since the making of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the evolution of the law since the creation of these documents, to this day Black people are still denied the most basic human rights.  I have respect for all of these documents, but at the end of the day they are still just that – documents. Pieces of paper. I say that because even after laws such as the Reconstruction Amendments were passed, they still did not guarantee any substantive rights to Black people. Although the laws did look good on paper, the lack of enforcement and implementation of these laws rendered them ineffective for along time. After the passing of those amendments, Black people were still unable to vote, they were still denied entry to institutions, as well as many other denials.

Many people believe that laws such as the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments and the civil rights laws were made for Black people. That is false. As a Black man, I of course know that I am Black, I know I am human and I know that as a Black human I should have the right to vote, eat where I want and be treated fairly. We as Blacks already know that. Those laws however, were made for White people who have always oppressed non-whites.  Those laws had to be created to tell White people “do not deny that Black man/woman their rights,” “do not discriminate against that Black man/woman.”

For example, the Voting Rights Act was one of the single most influential pieces of legislation that benefitted Black people. However, the Supreme Court recently struck down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County, Ala. vs. Holder in 2013. This section had required nine southern states to gain approval from the DOJ before making any changes to voting laws in their state. It is important to keep in mind that history has shown these states to practice the most racial tactics to disenfranchise people of color for decades. Shortly after this section was struck down, the Voter ID Act was passed in Texas, which placed an unconstitutional burden on over 500,000 Black people that were previously eligible to vote, and rendered them ineligible to vote in the 2014 gubernatorial elections. Time has shown that the racist system we live in, is still evolving in ways to disenfranchise and deny Black people our rights.

With the Fourth of July only a few days away, this may be a prime example to highlight one of the different ways in which laws have more significance in meaning for Whites than for Blacks. Although both Blacks and Whites fought the British to obtain freedom and liberation, after the war only Whites were free while Blacks remained enslaved. The signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Fourth of July did not guarantee freedom and independence for Blacks. Frederick Douglass may have said it best during a speech in 1852:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless…

As Black people, we must begin to educate ourselves to understand how White supremacy functions in all areas of people activity, so that we may begin to effectively counter and dismantle a racist system and have true justice and peace.

by Karen Bryson

The National Archives is a museum and research facility erected to celebrate America’s uncanny ability to keep records, to document events, and to memorialize the past.  The Archives is filled with all kinds of documentation and prides itself on housing, maintaining, and accounting for this information, from having the Magna Carta on display, to records documenting the ongoing struggle of Americans to define, attain, and protect their rights.   From baby photos of former presidents and first ladies, to gifts from Heads of State and beyond, the Archives has it.  In elementary school did you ever write a letter to the President?  If you answered yes, then the National Archives claims to even have all letters, including children’s letters, written to the President too.  The National Archives is America’s time capsule. It is the nation’s history recorded.  So generations from now, our children’s children will know the principles and people that help create the society they live in.

Among the abundance of information, are subtleties that are easy to overlook.  The underlying racism, sexism, and other prejudices engrained in our foundation are also memorialized in ink and exhibitions at the Archives.  Video clips of the Women’s Suffrage movement, documentation showing that even after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln enslaved persons, all over the country, were not freed for months and even years after signing, and accounts of discrimination and injustice of immigrants from all over the world can be found inside the Archives.

When looking at the Archives in the most favorable light, I put on my rose colored glasses.  Through my rose colored glasses, I was amazed at the history and information stored in one historic and protected place.  Through my rose colored glasses, I saw the important statement the United States was making by not only displaying its triumphs, but also revealing America’s shortcomings.  Through my rose colored glasses, I took note of how the financial burden, potentially barring access to this information, had been lifted by making the National Archives a part of the Smithsonian and not charging an entry fee.  The US has made this rich and valuable resource open to the public and available to all.

The National Archives is particularly useful in furthering along the work of the Cold Case Justice Initiative (“CCJI”). CCJI primarily investigates cold cases dealing with racially motivated killings and disappearances of African Americans during the Civil Rights Era and advocates for families to law enforcement.  CCJI also participates in victim identification and creating and maintaining a count of these deaths and disappearances, as such a list has never been accurately documented by our government. CCJI is also actively pursuing the amendment and extension of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act signed into law in 2008.   The Library of Congress summarizes the Emmett Till Act to say,

“Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act – Directs the Attorney General to designate a Deputy Chief in the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Makes the Deputy Chief responsible for investigating and prosecuting violations of criminal civil rights statutes in which the alleged violation occurred before January 1, 1970 and resulted in death.[1]

Section 5

Authorizes the Attorney General to award grants to state or local law enforcement agencies for the investigation and prosecution of violations of state or local laws that are similar to the federal criminal civil rights statutes. Authorizes appropriations.[2

Section 8

Terminates the effectiveness of the above provisions at the end of FY2017.”[3]

CCJI would like to see this act expanded.  For starters, civil rights crimes did not end January 1, 1970; so neither should the authority to investigate these crimes.  Second, the act is set to end in 2017 and the work is incomplete.  Hundreds or thousands of victims have yet to be acknowledged and accounted for by the government and of those the government has acknowledged, few cases are still open.  As for the cases that have been closed, little effort to seek justice has been shown by the government.  Cases are being closed with insufficient investigation.  No one bothered to interview the family, no one bothered to question the living witnesses, criminal documents from the 1960’s mysteriously come up “missing” without further investigation, and other investigational mistakes are taking place.  After a less than thorough investigation, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) makes an inconclusive determination to close the case.  Because of this, CCJI would like to amend The Emmett Till Act to require more than a mandatory annual report sent to Congress about the work of the Justice department. CCJI requests more rigid requirements be put in place before DOJ is able to close a case.  The government should require results; evidence of thorough investigations, prosecutorial involvement, and documentation of new developments and additional cases and victims that have been uncovered during their search for the truth.

As I remove my rose colored glasses and see the Archives, flaws and all, I see the disparities in documentation.  I see the undervaluation of slain African Americans here in this country across the spectrum where, on one hand, America does not denounce the existence of slavery while on the other hand America does not negate that African Americans were treated unequally during the civil rights era.  However, even this latter recognition falls short of truthfully describing the horrific racist acts that took place.

Many of these unspeakable acts were not thoroughly documented, but even some of the well-documented acts, like the Mustard Gas Experiments performed on American soldiers of color are withheld from display.  The mustard gas experiments were secret World War II chemical experiments where African American soldiers were locked in wooden chambers as mustard gas was piped inside to see its affects on humans.  Sixty thousand (60,000) documented soldiers were apart of this heinous testing, which included gas chambers, pouring mustard gas directly on one’s skin, and field tests where soldiers were exposed to mustard gas outdoors.   Most were soldiers of color.  The soldiers were sworn to secrecy and the government kept these experiments classified until 1991 when federal officials formally admitted to these acts of torture, declassified and published reports on the types of experiments conducted.  The parallels between these types of experiments conducted on Black, Latino, and Asian soldiers, and the atrocities committed during the Holocaust are chilling.  However, gruesome acts like this and hundreds of other unpublicized acts of abuse and violence perpetrated against people of color in this country are not recognized in the Archives, demonstrating racial disregard.

Without my rose colored glasses clouding my vision, I recognize the gaping holes in the picture painted in the Archives.  There is no accurate count of the hate crimes committed in this country.  There is no recognition of the countless unsolved murders of African Americans.  The government did not even bother to attempt to gather an unabridged list of names of African Americans who were slaughtered due to senseless racial hatred and since denied justice through the criminal justice system.  The US did not acknowledge the hundreds or thousands of disappearances that plagued African American communities.  Even today, 2015, our government continues to lie or trivialize the damage done by white superiority ideology.

With my rose colored glasses removed, I see the vital need of CCJI’s work.  Simply compiling a list of names never acknowledged by the Government, not deemed important enough to make it into the National Archives, is monumental.  Creating an effective process for providing justice to the families who have lived with the pain of losing a loved one and the hurt of their government turning their backs on them in their time of need.  This work is important and must be documented.

The National Archives is an important monument of information and of acknowledgement that these things happened and are important enough to remember.  CCJI is fighting to ensure that no matter your race, sex, or religion, you are remembered.

Two Reflections on the Holocaust Museum in Washingon, D.C.

An image from the Holocaust Museum
An image from the Holocaust Museum

by Karen Bryson

While touring the Holocaust museum, the stench of death, hatred, and mutilation filled the air suffocating any justice or peace.  This stench, also well known throughout American history with striking resemblances to the treatment of African Americans, was highlighted in this museum and explained in detail.  Senseless killing over arbitrary differences were tolerated and even justified by law, but the Holocaust story did not end there.  Today the stories of these victims live on and are recounted around the world.  Germany has dismantled and banned the Nazi regime. German society is acknowledging that harm has occurred, damage was done and thus they have started down a long road to recovery.  In contrast, acknowledgement is the step that America has yet to take.  America is still trying to bury their skeletons of racial killings and abuse. Hiding behind symbols deemed historical, like the confederate flag, which proudly flies over numerous state capitols in the southern region.  America has not yet acknowledged that this flag also represents the fabric of slavery and racial inferiority; principles deeply ingrained in the soil of this nation.   Without these acknowledgements, on a local and national level, America cannot heal.

In the museum, I was awed by the detailed documentation and vast information about the atrocities committed.  Horrific images flooded the hallways, leaving permanent visual imprints in a viewer’s mind of the pain suffered by Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, and non-Jews in opposition with the Nazi ideology.  From videos to clothing, the museum gave a clear look into 1930’s and 40’s, the rise and fall of the planned Nazi world take over and what that meant for ordinary citizens, Nazis and non-Nazis alike. It painted a sympathetic picture of those victimized during the Holocaust and illustrated for viewers that the Holocaust is to forever be remembered.

I appreciate the Holocaust museum for not only highlighting the damage caused by Hitler’s regime, but also the damage caused by individual citizens who stood by and did nothing while millions of their neighbors were being slaughtered in death camps.  These citizens, whether they were conscious of it or not, were “undocumented Nazi soldiers.”  Their silence aided in the Nazi’s fight and allowed the Nazi regime to grow and flourish.   In contrast, the museum also highlighted the individuals who did not sit idle, but took a stand.  Whether that stand was providing shelter, helping to pay for emigration, or participating in a rally.  Additionally, as the museum exhibit stated, “In Denmark 9 out of 10 Jews were saved; in Norway and Belgium about 1 out of 2; in the Netherlands, 1 out of 4; and in Lithuania and Poland, fewer than 2 in 10 survived.  When ordinary citizens became rescuers, Jews had a chance of survival.”

CCJI is a great example of individuals taking a stand here in America against the racist violence perpetrated against African Americans by organized groups such as the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) and America’s own racist “undocumented soldiers.” The depth of the violence and violation against African Americans throughout American history by law enforcement and “undocumented soldiers” is intolerable and the deaths that resulted should not be erased nor forgotten.  These slain black lives must be memorialized. CCJI represents the continued fight for justice for the families of those who never received it.  The Holocaust museum took years to build, years of fighting, of reminding, of insisting, that this atrocity be shrined and taught.  CCJI too, will not give up. Identifying victims and ensuring that an accurate investigation is performed on behalf of loved ones lost is beyond important, it is imperative.  It is the first step on the road to recovery; acknowledgement of the harm that has occurred and the damage that was done.  Only after this step will America begin to heal.

A quote that hung in The Holocaust museum, by Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

His point in this quote was that Germans had been complicit through their silence in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people.  Americans share in this complicity.  By not coming forward and helping to ensure justice is served for those who have committed crimes, by hiding or destroying information about African American killings or by simply not acknowledging that these atrocities took place, you too are an “undocumented soldier,” aiding and abetting racism and oppression.  The fight for justice is ours now and each person must do his or her part to ensure human rights for all people.

In the eloquent words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”


by Ibrahim Lawton

Pain and suffering are the only words that can be used to describe what Jewish people went through at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. As I sit and think about what the United States did or did not do during that time to help when Jews were getting slaughtered like animals, I am not surprised. The museum exhibits allowed me to understand the parallels then and now between racism in America and the anti-Semitism that took/takes place in Germany. With America’s history of oppression as well as racial and ethnic discrimination, it did not come as a surprise to learn that America failed to utilize their power to aid in closing the concentration camps after they learned of the ethnic cleansing that was taking place. My past studies of ethnic cleansing, spanning from the genocides in Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, and the Ottoman Turks annihilation of the Christian Armenians- indicate that the root of the hate, can always be traced to white Europeans and their descendants.

American racism is fundamentally based on the most potent principle of Nazi propaganda which is to manifest differentiation. Differentiation would allow for the larger, Christian German population to detach themselves from and lose empathy for the Jewish population as they strip them of their humanity. By removing any “alike-ness”, the German people disassociated with the Jewish population thus, allowing themselves to view them as worthy of genocide. This is eerily similar to how White Americans disconnect themselves from the Black population- often leading them to ripping the Black community of all humanity and finding them deserving of any harmful treatment- even death.

It dawned on me after leaving the museum that the United States did not come to the aid of those in the concentration camps who, in addition to the Jewish population also included homosexuals, Gypsies, people with mental and physical disabilities, and Black populations, because there was an atrocity taking place in their own backyard that was always fueled by, as I stated before, propaganda that promotes differentiation. For example, the ideology of White supremacy which is engrained into the American psyche, propagates the notion that Black men are savages that our sexual desires cannot be contained and our desires for the white woman runneth over. According to White patriarchal belief, White women are viewed as a “trophy” or object of attainment or possession for White men, and White men find it to be their duty to protect them from the “overtly, sexual Black man”. This propaganda justified the lynching of countless Black men, just as Nazi propaganda of Jews as thieves justified the Holocaust. Both racism is America and Nazism in Germany criminalized those who were differentiated from themselves to make death an acceptable option. Because hundreds of thousands of Black people were killed here in America for centuries without any second thought by society or just outcomes, the work of the Cold Case Justice Initiative in identifying victims of racially motivated killings will always be needed.

There are many other similarities and parallels. For instance, I see the concentration camps that the Nazis used to murder millions of men, women and children the same as the plantations, lynching and castrations the White population inflicted on Black people here in America. The sterilizing, degradation and experimenting by the Nazis on Jews is the same as the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments on Black men in the United States by White scientist.  Joeseph Mengele was a German physician for the Nazi party in 1943. Once he became the chief physician and had the full authority to maim or kill his subjects, Mengele performed a broad range of agonizing and often lethal experiments on Jewish and Gypsy twins, most of whom were children. Many of his “test subjects” died as a result of the inhumane experiments or were murdered in order to facilitate post-mortem examination.

It is ridiculous to me that America can be outraged about the Mengele experiments on the Jewish and Gypsy population in the concentration campus, however, and remain unmoved when it comes to the experiments our own government did to Black Americans including the mustard gas experiments conducted on soldiers of color by the U.S government during WWII. Ultimately, if the United States would have stepped in, it would have proved to be a hypocrisy, because how could they denounce a racial/ethnic cleansing in another country, when they were actively and systematically performing one of their own- a racial/ethnic cleansing that is still happening today?

I plan to continue to examine the similarities and contrasts between Black and Jewish experiences of racism and anti-Semitism from past and present times. I am particularly interested in the ways in which White supremacist ideology manifests in each community, the different levels of oppression experienced by the Black population which Jews may not face due to a white supremacy system that favors them, and the economic disparities between the Black and Jewish communities.

The memorial of the many victims of the Holocaust including the Jews, Gypsies and many others in the museum was an excellent display. I was turned off by there not being any recognition giving to the hundreds of thousands of Blacks that were also killed during that Holocaust. Time and time and again, Black people are killed, just as we were in the Jewish holocaust, and just as we are killed today, and it gets overlooked. This stresses the importance of the work that CCJI does, to not only bring justice to families who have lost a loved one, but at the most basic level, to bring to light recognition that a human life was lost at the hands of murderers for no just reason.

“Brave Thinking”

CCJI Atlanta interns researching their respective cases
CCJI Atlanta interns researching their respective cases

The second week of work for the summer interns of the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) entailed more investigation into our cases. We made public records requests to certain Police Departments and made visits to various local libraries. In between research sessions, we conducted a good deal of community outreach. At the People’s Agenda afternoon meeting on Tuesday, June 9, three interns, Shirlise, Andrew, and I, Professor McDonald, and various local activists crammed into the second story of the SCLC Women’s Building on Auburn Avenue. Joe Beasley of Rainbow Push brought visitors from Partners for Care, an American-based non-profit focused on developing local capacity and resources in Kenya. One of the head American administrators of the program explained that 85% of the world’s disease is due to waterborne illness. Therefore, the fight for clean water, basic as it sounds, is paramount to world health. Partners for Care provides light weight, sanitary, and reusable water packs for $10. You can find the link to donate here https://www.partnersforcare.org/what-we-do/outreach-programs/.

Following Mr. Beasley’s introduction, Pastor John Hirbo spoke from a Kenyan perspective about the struggles arising from poverty and the work that Partners for Care is doing to cultivate local leaders and healing in his community. Explaining the local poverty that motivates him to work tirelessly washing children’s feet and providing clean water, the pastor stated, “One goal: a better Africa. Unite. Somewhere somebody is doing evil, and we followed… Someone here [in America] can see far… Come for us, we are ready to accept it.” With passion, the pastor extolled the virtues of faith, exclaiming, “God will give my children a good life.” The riveting presentation ended with a rousing rendition of Amazing Grace sung by a Kenyan gospel singer traveling with the Partners for Care team. The CCJI interns left with a stronger sense of the interconnection of global poverty issues and the state of American society. We were impressed with our own relative blessings and the complacency of many Americans, thus instilling us with a stronger commitment to fight for social justice against the evil that surrounds us.

After the People’s Agenda meeting, Professor McDonald led Shirlise, Andrew, and me to lunch at Mary Mac’s with Hank Stewart and our own Kevin Moran. Mr. Stewart is a renowned poet and founder/ operator of a youth leadership development foundation based in Atlanta. He actively supported a voter registration drive to register every graduating high school senior in three Atlanta high schools this year. Over a traditional southern feast of fried chicken, chicken livers, collard greens, shrimp and grits, mac n’ cheese, and broccoli casserole, washed down with sweet tea and water, we strategized about how best to reach young people and to convince them to talk to older family members about their personal experiences during the civil rights era, including suspicious activities that they either experienced, witnessed, or were aware of. Mr. Stewart being a stalwart cultural producer himself, we also discussed a multimedia campaign incorporating hip-hop with the CCJI’s political message.

CCJI Interns continue conversation with Inez Giles, longtime resident and member of Oakhurst Presbyterian congregation
CCJI Interns continue conversation with Inez Giles, longtime resident and member of Oakhurst Presbyterian congregation

On Wednesday afternoon, we ate lunch with Inez Giles. Ms. Giles is a wise woman, a long-time member of the Oakhurst Presbyterian congregation and resident of DeKalb County. She had cooked a delicious spread of baked chicken, ham, beans, potato salad, mac n’ cheese, and pound cake. We feasted. Alphonse demolished three plates in about ten seconds. After eating, we listened to Ms. Giles talk about her time in Decatur and her experience as part of the black community. She cautioned us interns to think carefully about the way we approach members of the community with our work. Ms. Giles suggested, “Just ask people, how can we help?” Her message was clear: we are approaching people about a sensitive topic, racial killings that have never been fully resolved. Society has until now forgotten about these folks. As law students, we must remain cognizant of the fact that many of the community members have experienced traumas that they may not feel comfortable sharing with us. We must approach these interactions openly and with sensitivity. Only by taking honest account of who we are as individuals and placing ourselves in positions where we gradually earn the trust of people will we be able to effectively serve the community.

After Ms. Giles left, Kevin Moran, Alphonse, Andrew, and I met at a local reverend’s church to ask him and his co-pastor particular questions about our respective cases. Relieved by the Reverend’s cool air-conditioned office, we listened as he started the meeting by explaining to us that we were “archaeologists of justice,” meticulously unearthing nuggets of truth, just as real archaeologists use little spoons to dig out artifacts. The Reverend then explained that he had been arrested in the ‘60s as a teenager as “[p]art of a systemic effort to have us listed with the criminal justice system. I was arrested for vagrancy with schoolbooks in my hand.” No charges were ultimately brought, but the Reverend explained a record of arrest was left that worked to track him for the rest of his adult life. Because of that early arrest, the police always had a record of him. The story helped put into perspective the experience of being a young black male in the 1960s.

Once the co-pastor arrived, we asked the reverends about our cases. They gave us helpful information. After they explained what the general opinion had been following the police killings, we asked if people had entertained the idea that something else had happened, something contrary to the police narrative. The co-pastor said, “Generally we didn’t think about what might have happened. If it did happen [that the police had killed the black youth without cause], we just had to let it go. Because there was nothing else we could do.” The reverend spoke up, “[We had] no recourse. [This was the] time of the Night Riders. [They were] not looking for justice for us. The police wanted to control [us].”

Both men agreed that black officers were often even harsher on the black youth than white cops in order to prove that they deserved their positions. “They had power,” said the co-pastor, “they had beats. They had power in the community.” The Reverend added, “They couldn’t stop whites.” The co-pastor elaborated, “they had to call a white officer.” The co-pastor concluded with the recollection, “[We] grew up afraid of the police… [Our] parents would say, I’ll call the police on you to get you to straighten up.” We left the office chilled by the reverends’ revelations.

On Thursday, we were invited to visit the Davis Bozeman firm. Located in Decatur near Candler Road, the Davis Bozeman firm handles criminal defense and civil rights litigation cases. As a community-oriented, Black law firm, Davis Bozeman displays a memorial to Black lawyers and legal advocates in the office foyer, with photographs of such leaders as Ida B. Wells, Donald Lee Hollowell, C.B. King, and Nelson Mandela.

Memorial photos of black lawyers at Davis Bozeman Law Firm
Memorial photos of black lawyers at Davis Bozeman Law Firm

Mr. Davis expounded upon the importance of versing yourself in the legal legacy that precedes you, so that you might better add to it in your own time. Though he currently has sixty-seven criminal defense cases, Mr. Davis also took the time to explain to us his civil rights practice and how he handles criminal defense. Briefly, he covered the categories of cases the firm takes: excessive force, false imprisonment, and false arrest. Excessive force refers to the use of force by police that is beyond what is necessary to effectuate arrest, like when there is a chase, then the chief of police bashes the runner upside his head with a pistol. In the state of Georgia, false arrest refers to a warrant based on false information, while false imprisonment refers to a warrantless arrest. Mr. Davis explained that all of these types of cases are “happening, it’s always been happening. Now, we have video footage.” Even with footage available, Mr. Davis made clear that these cases amount to “the Officer’s word versus your client’s word.” Mr. Davis pledged the full support of the firm for the work done by the CCJI.

In the morning of Friday, June 12, the CCJI team stationed in Atlanta met with a DeKalb county criminal defense attorney. A local public defender, he gave us some insight into investigative methods and the contours of the criminal justice system today. First, he explained to us the best ways to obtain records of police officers in the 1960s from local Georgia agencies. Always “research,” not “investigating,” he said, in reference to how we represent our activities over the phone. Then, he told us that the best way to determine if a particular autopsy had been incorrectly performed was probably not to find the person who did the autopsy and then reveal that they were lazy and racist. Rather, a constructively parallel method would be more effective, that of determining how other coroners were doing things that weren’t lazy and racist and establishing standards independently of the target coroner. The lesson here was that people are much more willing to talk to establish contemporary standards and protocols than to incriminate themselves. Third, the attorney advised us to find community members that were there at the time. “People love talking about their communities,” he explained, so this should be an easy source of information. Given the age of the population we are dealing with, just be ready for some long-winded, unrelated stories, too, he said with a laugh.

The attorney also divulged the racism inherent to the criminal justice system today. “It’s difficult to find overt racists,” he said. “It’s easy to find people who buy into the racist system. The Justice System is racist.” The attorney took time to explain racism through the process of bonding out of jail. “Bond is never reduced by prosecutors,” he stated. In $700 bond scenarios for a simple assault charge, a White person might be able to pay it and get out versus spending six months in jail. However, for the same simple assault charge, a Black person may not be able to pay $700, and thus is forced to sit in jail for six months. Overwhelmingly, the racial contours of bonding fall along black or brown and white lines. The same pattern can be seen in pre-trial diversion programs arranged by lawyer versus plea deals taken to get out of jail without the help of representation, he revealed. “[The situation] requires brave thinking, and innovative thinking,” the attorney said. “Racism still exists in the justice system every day… [and] on the day to day, [it’s] not attributable to bad actors.” When we asked why the system couldn’t simply be altered to correct the racism inherent to the institution, the attorney responded, “It takes real effort to get at the root of it. It would mess up a lot of people’s day to day.”

CCJI Interns working in their office
CCJI Interns working in their office

With so many different messages coming at us, our second full week of work provided the student interns of CCJI in Atlanta with a profound look at the sheer complexity of the project we are engaged in. Learning some of the history of race relations in the 1960s from first-hand sources who actually lived it humbled us and provided us with perspective.

CCJI co-directors with summer interns
CCJI co-directors with summer interns

This newfound historical perspective, coupled with our own legal research, provided a firm foundation from which we were able to compare and contrast cases from the present. There has been some change, it would seem, technologically and culturally, but the core issues are still present: racism, ever present and pervasive, saturates many of the legal and civic institutions that surround and situate us.

The community has not healed from the wrongs of the past, and the wounds of the present are digging ever deeper. For us, the student interns of CCJI, grappling with the present means looking back to the past for explanation. Justice must first be achieved for what preceded us before we can adequately prepare ourselves for justice in the present. And behind the echoes of the past, we can hear the cries of living injustices committed half a world away. As the local public defender advised us, we must think bravely, we must think innovatively, otherwise the deep wounds of the past may fester, and new injuries will continue to mount…


Professor Janis McDonald (blue suit) Stands with families affected by racially-motivated killings who continue to demand justice
Professor Janis McDonald (blue suit) stands with families affected by racially-motivated killings who continue to demand justice



“Let’s start the work right now”

CCJI student Interns attend Sunday Service at Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church
CCJI student Interns attend Sunday Service at Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church


On Sunday, May 31, the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) team attended church service at the historical Ebenezer Baptist Church dressed in their Sunday best. Ebenezer was the church of Martin Luther King, Jr, and his big–hearted spirit was surely felt that Sunday. We sat in the second row and joined the congregation in worship. In between songs, the pastor introduced the CCJI to the church body. After the music, Dr. Raphael Warnock spoke inspirationally on the importance of cultivating a spiritual life, even for regular churchgoers. The Reverend concluded with an incredible parable about his beloved iPad suffering from “connectivity issues.” The moment he finished, the power cut out and rain began to fall furiously from the sky. Out the windows of the church, the rain shook the trees, and it drummed heavily on the roof. It really felt as if the Spirit had filled the room and walked amongst us. For the summer interns of CCJI, the vigorous rain washed away the sweat and tears of a grudging year of law school, renewing and revitalizing us for the good work of the coming summer.

Monday, June 1 marked the first day of work in office for the interns stationed in Atlanta. Larrissa, Mandisa, Shirlise, Andrew, Lamar, Alphonse, and I showed up between 9 and 10am. With the help of the intrepid Kevin Moran, our resident political activist and guide through town, we pulled together some tables and set up our laptops on the second floor of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur. Professor McDonald divided the seven of us into three teams and assigned us each an initial case. Two killed by police, one lynch victim. All in Atlanta, all in the 1960s. We spent time brainstorming how to properly move forward and investigate these cases. Press coverage. Police reports. Autopsies. Property records. Each piece of information required careful planning and diligent effort, and starting the investigative work filled up much of the remainder of the week.

However, as had become clear to us over the course of orientation weekend, investigation is only one prong of the project at CCJI. In order to fight for justice, we must go out and visit face to face with residents. We rely on community outreach to build our bank of cases and to get the word out about the work that we’re doing. In order to take advantage of the CCJI, the community must first know that we exist. This explains the reason for our introduction at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and at the day’s program of panels at the Civil Rights Center on Saturday, May 30. But these events were only the first of many.

Too Much Truth host Derrick Boazman with CCJI student interns Alphonse Williams, Larrissa Moore and Brent Lightfoot
Too Much Truth host Derrick Boazman with CCJI student interns Alphonse Williams, Larrissa Moore and Brent Lightfoot

On Tuesday, June 2, the CCJI team attended the People’s Agenda luncheon at Wheat Street Baptist Church. The People’s Agenda is a state wide and regional coalition, bringing together groups to work on issues of voter participation and to inform the community of the most pressing social issues confronting it. Alongside about a hundred other social activists, our team chowed down on a traditional meal of fried chicken, ham, macaroni and cheese, green beans, cabbage, and cake, washed down with endless sweet tea. After lunch, we listened to Michael L. Thurmond, the interim superintendent of DeKalb County Schools, speak about the budgetary and political issues facing the school system today. Mr. Thurmond argued that, despite the magnitude of Georgia public schools earning an F on the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI),[1] he was not leading a county of “failed” schools, but rather “allegedly failed” schools. Many of the DeKalb County schools, he explained, were improving faster than the state rate. For instance, when children are largely entering school four reading levels behind their grade, if they can improve two whole reading levels within a year, that’s success (despite the state mandated rates that don’t account for particular situations confronting schools). And facing an extreme budget deficit and an aging bus system, Mr. Thurmond was insistent that the school system had greatly improved over the past couple years by escaping its budgetary woes and purchasing new buses and rehiring mechanics for the coming year.

Mr. Thurmond then turned back in history to review the origins of the black community in Georgia. James Oglethorpe, the founder of the state of Georgia, was an abolitionist, Mr. Thurmond explained, and the Seminole tribe in the Southeast was comprised of both red and black peoples. Literacy has always been a paramount issue to the black community, even while largely enslaved in the United States, and literacy is still one of the most pressing issues confronting the community today. But Mr. Thurmond took care to note the improvements between today and yesterday. “In the 1960s, if you were killed, you were just killed,” he said, referring to the unsolved crimes investigated by the CCJI. At least today, he explained, there will be the semblance of a prosecution. Ultimately, Mr. Thurmond impressed upon the CCJI the interconnection of issues with public education and unsolved civil rights crimes, as the persistent racism that infects the school systems serves as the stumbling block to progress for the CCJI as well.

Too Much Truth in-studio appearance by CCJI-Atlanta students
Too Much Truth in-studio appearance by CCJI-Atlanta students

On Thursday, June 4, Alphonse, Larrissa, and I were privileged to appear on Derrick Boazman’s radio show Too Much Truth on 1380 WAOK. For about an hour, the three of us represented the student interns of CCJI in Atlanta and impressed upon the community the importance of the work done by CCJI and our motivations for doing it. You can find the full broadcast here. http://atlanta.cbslocal.com/2015/06/04/too-much-truth-solving-cold-cases/

On Saturday, June 6, the CCJI-Atlanta team made an appearance at former state legislator “Able” Mable Thomas’ fish fry fundraiser for the renovation of the English Avenue Elementary School. The English Avenue School was attended by Able Mable herself, as well as Gladys Knight and the infamous Herman Cain, before its closure. Despite the heat, the CCJI interns, alongside Professor McDonald, were able to make numerous contacts in the West End and Bankhead areas, as our presence was announced before the party and introductions and inquiries were made all around.

"Able" Mable fish fry
CCJI-Atlanta student interns attend former state legislator “Able” Mable Thomas’ fish fry fundraiser

Finally, on Sunday, June 7, Professor McDonald and Larrissa attended the service at our work home, Oakhurst Presbyterian. It was communion Sunday. Larissa and Professor McDonald took turns preaching the good word of the CCJI at the Oakhurst lectern. The congregation was very receptive and supportive. They listened attentively and offered to help in any way they could. We are very happy to be working out of the church building of such a welcoming community.

Over the past ten days, the CCJI was able to make numerous connections throughout the Atlanta community and to begin investigating three poignant cases in the Atlanta area. The summer has started fast, and we feel the pressure of only having ten weeks to try and make a difference on this project. Having been invited to participate in so many events around the community has impressed upon us the relevance and gravity of our work. The plight of black people as documented in the news today is not new to us, as it has occurred to our families, to our friends, and in our own neighborhoods. Now, looking back sixty years, the parallels are breath taking. There is nothing new occurring today. Just new faces in an age-old old story about race and racism, death and its consequence.

With so many members of the community invested in our work, the summer interns at CCJI are committed to pulling back the veil of ignorance to show the world the truth of what really happened. Because if not us, then who? And if not now, then when? Just as President Obama exhorted us, “Let’s start the work right now,” in his 2015 State of the Union Address, we will follow through on that charge. The time for work is now, and we absolutely refuse to accept the failure of justice for yet another generation. This is our generation, this is our time, and we will have justice.

CCJI-Atlanta interns take a selfie
CCJI-Atlanta interns take a selfie

[1] The Georgia legislature’s recent study reviewing the Georgia public schools using the CCPRI for the previous three years contained a list of hundreds of schools from various counties, including schools in the Atlanta public school system, Bibb County, Chatham County, Clayton County, DeKalb County, Fulton County, Macon County, Muscogee County, Richmond County, etc., primarily comprising black communities.

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

CCJI Summer Orientation Program, May 30, 2015

CCJI student interns pose in front of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church where some will be based during the summer
CCJI student interns pose in front of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church where some will be based during the summer

The Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) works in response to William Faulkner’s principle. The evils of the past have not yet been resolved by the arm of justice, so the past is not only with us and a part of us: that evil still lives in our midst. Accordingly, on Saturday, May 30, 2015, the CCJI hosted a day of panels at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia. While thirsty patrons of the Coca-Cola museum guzzled down soda on the lawn above, the CCJI diligently pursued long-overdue justice for the community, just as it has been doing for the past eight years. Entitled Past & Present Families United: Justice & Accountability for Racist Killings, the event operated as an orientation program for CCJI’s summer interns. Presenting the voices of family members of the victims of racially-motivated violence and their continuing quest for justice, as well as members of the media who investigate these cases and inform the public about the continuing need for awareness, and advocates and activists who work with family members and communities to obtain justice, the event contemplated the meaning and legacy of the unsolved civil rights crimes cases. The day also saw a strategic discussion for concrete ideas for the pursuit of justice and accountability and ways in which CCJI law student interns can advance these causes in collaboration with families, communities, and social justice organizations and governmental organizations.

Shelton Chappell shares the story of his mother's murder during the CCJI event at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. His mother, Johnnie Mae Chappell was shot and killed in Jacksonville, Florida in 1964.
Shelton Chappell shares the story of his mother’s murder during the CCJI event at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. His mother, Johnnie Mae Chappell was shot and killed in Jacksonville, Florida in 1964.

The day was marked by pathos, power, and tears. We heard from families still fighting for justice decades after suffering their loss. Joyce Dorsey and Jessica Malcom, representing the Moore’s Ford Bridge Massacre families, and Janice Cameron and Nedra Walker, representing the families of the Five Atlanta Fishermen Killed in Pensacola, Florida, represented the awful trials and travails of pursuing justice decades after their loved ones died. Shelton Chappell, the youngest son of Johnnie Mae Chappell, spoke of the sharp pain he and his family still feel over his mother’s death fifty-one years ago. Denise Jackson Ford and Wharlest Jackson, Jr. conveyed the love that the Natchez, Mississippi community still feels for their father, Wharlest Jackson, Sr., and their staunch refusal to accept the warped logic in the FBI’s closure of their father’s case. And showing the parallel suffering wrought upon the community today, Martinez Sutton, brother of Chicago’s Rekia Boyd, wove the narrative of insensitivity and legal incompetence that surrounds his sister’s recent death at the hands of a Chicago police officer.

Documentary film crew capturing Saturday's event.
Documentary film crew capturing Saturday’s event.

Allies of the families of the dead, representing the political structure and the media, conveyed the urgency of making the struggle for justice imperative upon the community. Tyrone Brooks, a former Georgia State Representative, depicted his ongoing struggle in and outside of the legislature to obtain justice for these families. Pulitzer Prize–nominee Stanley Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, Louisiana explained the difficulty of providing news coverage for unsolved civil rights cases in local newspapers. Pulitzer prize–winning journalist Hank Klibanoff, director of the GA Civil Rights Cases project at Emory University, explained the challenges in teaching today’s students about outstanding civil rights crimes. Angela Robinson, president of A.R.C. Media, LLC, touched on the importance of holding television news stations accountable for their framing of civil rights stories. And, Derrick Boazman, radio host of Atlanta’s “Too Much Truth,” pointed to the power of radio in telling the stories of unsolved civil rights crimes.

In looking towards the present and future, allies of the CCJI engaged in a round table discussion of strategic decision making in the realm of unsolved civil rights cases. Understanding the larger social context surrounding these cases is paramount to addressing them properly. Accordingly, Joe Beasley of Rainbow Push; Deborah Watts of the Emmett Till Family Legacy Foundation; C.B. King, the famed civil rights attorney; Rev. Dr. Francys Johnson, president of Georgia’s NAACP; Mawuli Davis, a prominent civil rights attorney; and Aurielle Marie, of Atlanta’s It’s Bigger Than You, worked together to identify particular problems in the community and appropriate means for addressing those problems.

Martinez Sutton discusses the killing of his innocent sister at the hands of a chicago police officer who was acquitted of any wrongdoing during day-long event at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia
Martinez Sutton discusses the killing of his innocent sister at the hands of a Chicago police officer who was acquitted of any wrongdoing during day-long event at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia

Finally, professors Janis McDonald and Paula Johnson of Syracuse College of Law, co-directors of the CCJI, presented the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act of 2007 and its failings. While exhorting the FBI and Department of Justice “to expeditiously investigate unsolved civil rights murders, due to the amount of time that has passed since the murders and the age of the potential witnesses” and “provide all the resources necessary to ensure timely and thorough investigations in the cases involved,” the Emmett Till Act has failed to initiate adequate action by either branch. The directors indicated the intention of the CCJI to advocate for amendment and extension of the Emmett Till Act so that justice may be attained.

Justice delayed is only justice denied if we accept failure. Saturday’s panels reaffirmed our refusal to accept the failure of justice. Though the U.S. has no institution devoted to human rights, investigation of the genocide committed here against African-Americans is ongoing. As long as the community calls for it, the CCJI is committed to continue the fight for justice by any means necessary.

Brent Lightfoot
CCJI Summer Intern
Emory University School of Law