Magazine article Nieman Reports

A Father's Life Tugs His Son to Revisit Unsolved Crimes

Magazine article Nieman Reports

A Father's Life Tugs His Son to Revisit Unsolved Crimes

Article excerpt

I didn't set out to be a journalist. When I went on paternity leave from my doctoral program for the spring 2003 semester, I planned to write a dissertation--with my baby son strapped to my chest--about Gertrude Stein's impact on American poetry. But other interests took over. In time, my impulse to reconnect with my father's life in the civil rights movement gave me a new role to play--as a blogger, then journalist--unearthing stories from his time, untold until now.


My father Paul A. Greenberg died in 1997. For the next five years, I spent what extra time I had researching his life. This meant collecting recordings and chasing down details about the life of jazz trumpeter Frankie Newton, my father's dear friend and mentor, and exploring the times in the 1950's and '60's when my father was involved with the labor and disarmament movements and as special assistant to Martin Luther King, Jr. with the civil rights movement in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

It didn't take long for Stein--and my academic ambitions--to be eclipsed by this expanding journey into my dad's past. By 2004, I had accumulated thousands of pages of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) documents from Freedom of Information Act requests. I had also begun reading blogs. That February, one of my favorite bloggers, the pseudonymous Jeanne D'Are, posed a series of questions and shared links to what she was reading about the ouster of Haiti's president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. As her questions evolved into an analysis of the developing situation, it struck me that blogging offered a different structure than writing a book or for a magazine. With its open-ended and incremental format, a writer could present the process of making sense of new information; it was a perfect way for me to explore what I was learning about my father.

Soon, my blog, Hungry Blues, was born.

Visibility and Community

It wasn't long before one of my father's colleagues, Robert Adamenko, found a blog post I'd written about the August 5, 1963 benefit concert my father helped organize to raise money for locals to attend that summer's March on Washington. Held on the campus of the historically black Miles College, just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, where no venue would allow an integrated civil rights movement event, the show was headlined by Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Johnny Mathis, and Ella Fitzgerald.

"Ben, I came across Hungry Blues online and my past was coming out of my head, what a wonderful time I had with Paul in Birmingham. Your dad was my mentor and friend," Adamenko wrote in his e-mail to me. He also sent me negatives of photos he took of the show.

My first year of blogging in 2004 also led to my first investigation, a case that still haunts me. That summer I noticed someone on a listserv for civil rights movement veterans posting a link to a brief article in the Montgomery Advertiser about a 29-year-old black man named Winston "DeRoyal" Carter, who on August 13 had been found dead, hanging from a tree on County Road 65 in Tuskegee, Alabama.

I sensed that the person on the listserv knew more about the story than what had been published. She and I began corresponding. Turns out that her husband, also a veteran civil rights activist, had gone to Tuskegee to investigate. Despite the suspicious circumstances, the ease was dismissed as a suicide even before the police investigation was complete and autopsy findings had been disclosed. The news needed to spread beyond Alabama or Carter's story would soon be forgotten.

Recalling how bloggers had drawn national attention to United States Senator Trent Lott's racist demagoguery in 2002, I reached out to about 20 bloggers. Soon this story darted around the Internet. One of my blogger friends had gone to school with Carter. A member of Carter's family contacted me and we began sharing infor mation. I filed a public records request for the autopsy report. …

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