Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Unfinished Business: Victims of Civil Rights Era Crimes Are Finally Getting Justice through the Persistence of Relatives, Journalists, and Prosecutors

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Unfinished Business: Victims of Civil Rights Era Crimes Are Finally Getting Justice through the Persistence of Relatives, Journalists, and Prosecutors

Article excerpt


With time running out as witnesses and suspects die, a number of notorious crimes of the civil rights era are being reopened. In many cases, it's been the persistence of relatives, journalists, and film-makers who refused to give up that kept the pressure on law-enforcement officials to solve and try these cases.


* Grab students' attention by writing "murder" on the board. Tell them they will read about a series of murders, some a half-century old, that are only now being solved.


* Direct students' attention to the Unresolved Civil Rights Crime Act (p. 11). Ask students whether they would support such a bill. Then turn the question around. Ask: If civil rights crimes deserve such attention, why not other types of violent crime? Do civil rights crimes deserve special attention?


* What might help explain the fact that the F.B.I. never investigated most of the 51 killings of blacks noted in the article?

* Remind students that, although there were large numbers of civil rights killings, few witnesses have come forward, even many years after the event. Which social or cultural factors might account for this fact?

* Should the advanced age of defendants in these cases be taken into consideration when deciding their sentences?


* Between 1890 and 1960, at least 4,742 Americans were lynched, according to figures released by the office of Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

* In 2005, the Senate apologized for failing to act on any of 200 anti-lynching bills introduced in the first half of the 20th century.


www.civitrightsmuseum .org

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis provides background on the civil rights struggle. Click on "Exhibits/Gallery."

Charles Moore and Henry Dee were both 19 when they disappeared on the night of May 2, 1964. The two black teenagers, a college student and a sawmill worker, were hitchhiking along a Mississippi highway when two white men pulled over and offered them a ride.

Dee and Moore refused, fearing correctly that the men were from the Ku Klux Klan. Posing as law-enforcement officers, the men then demanded that they get in the car. They drove them to the nearby Homochitto National Forest, where several other Klansmen were waiting. The two men suspected Dee and Moore of being part of a rumored plot to stage an armed uprising.

After tying the youths to a tree and beating them unconscious, the men drove them to Louisiana, some 75 miles away. They bound Dee to a car engine and tied Moore to some iron weights. The teenagers were probably still alive when they were dumped into the Mississippi River.


During the early days of the civil rights movement, dozens of racially motivated killings took place, especially in the South. A few cases gained national attention. One of the most notorious was the 1964 murder of three young civil rights workers--James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner--portrayed decades later in the movie Mississippi Burning.

But for every infamous killing that tore at the South in the 1950s and 1960s, many others--like the case of Dee and Moore--were barely noted, much less investigated.

Cases like theirs often gain momentum only when the victims of the past find voices in the present--like those that recently helped arrest 71-year-old James F. Seale in connection with the murders of Moore and Dee. Rather than police officials, it has often been journalists and filmmakers who have combed through documents and tracked down witnesses, fueling some 15 years of successful prosecutions.

Now, however, with time running out as witnesses and suspects die, law-enforcement officials are taking a systematic approach to unsolved civil rights era crimes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (F. …

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