Rolling Back Injustice: In Court

Beginning in the mid 1990s, there has been positive momentum to bring the perpetrators of racial crimes to justice. Klansmen who were acquitted decades ago by all-white juries or convicted on lesser charges and given a few years in jail have been brought back to court.  And finally justice has been seen to be done in several of these cases. 

Cases were re-opened because of new evidence that became available for a variety of reasons.  The FBI under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover had withheld evidence that could have been used to convict Klansmen.  It later cooperated fully in the investigations. In Mississippi , 132,000 pages of documents from the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission were finally made public in 1998.  The Commission had been set up in 1956 to resist desegregation. When it was disbanded in 1977, its archives were kept secret. The records included information about the murders of civil rights activists. 

1994: Justice for Medgar Evers

The case involving the murder of the Mississippi civil rights activist was the first to be re-opened.  Medgar Evers had become the first Mississippi field secretary of the NAACP in 1954.  He organized sit ins and demonstrations to protest segregation, and voter registration drives. 

On June 12, 1963 he was gunned down by a sniper as he walked from his car to his house.  He died in front of his wife and two small children.

Byron de la Beckwith of the Ku Klux Klan was immediately arrested, but two white policemen testified that they saw him 60 miles away at the time of the murder.  He was acquitted twice by all white juries.

The case was reopened after new evidence came to light that the juries had been tampered with.  In 1994, 31 years after the murder, 73-year-old Beckwith again was put on trial and found guilty of murder by a racially-mixed jury.  He was sentenced to life in prison and died in 2001, aged 80.

1998: Justice for Vernon Dahmer

Vernon Dahmer of Hattiesburg, Mississippi was a farmer, shopkeeper and Movement activist who spearheaded a drive for voter registration.   On January 10, 1966, a day after he announced that his neighbors could pay their poll tax at his store, three carloads of Klansmen firebombed his house.  His wife, children and aunt escaped while he held off the attackers with a shotgun.  He later died of burns and smoke inhalation. 

Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the Klan in Mississippi , was tried on four occasions for ordering Dahmer's murder, and went free each time when the jury deadlocked.  Thirteen others were arrested for carrying out the crime.  They were convicted, and served less than ten years in prison.

After new evidence emerged of jury tampering in his trials, Sam Bowers was arrested and re-tried in 1998.  The jury found him guilty of conspiring to commit murder and he received a mandatory life sentence.

2001 – 2002: Justice for Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie May Collins and Denise McNair

On September 15, 1963 a bomb went off in Birmingham 's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church , killing four young girls – three of them 14 years old and one aged 11.  They were attending Bible study class.  Twenty-two other people were injured in the blast.

Several Klan members were arrested but no charges filed for over a decade.  After his niece gave evidence against him, Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss was finally charged and convicted in 1977.  He died in prison in 1985.

In 1980, the Justice Department revealed that FBI head J. Edgar Hoover had blocked Birmingham FBI agents from giving information about their investigation to prosecutors.  That evidence included tape recordings in which the men talked of a meeting at which they "planned the bomb." 

The FBI eventually reopened the case against other Klansmen mentioned in the FBI investigation. Thomas Blanton, Jr. was convicted of murder in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison.  In 2002 Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted and sentenced to four life terms.  He died in prison in 2004. 

2005:  Justice for Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney

On June 21, 1964 three civil rights workers who were taking part in "Mississippi Freedom Summer" were arrested by Neshoba County deputy sheriff Cecil Price in Philadelphia , Mississippi .  They were briefly jailed and then released in the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.  Their bodies were found 44 days later.

The FBI eventually arrested 18 men but the state said it had no evidence to use against them so they were not charged with murder.  Instead, they faced federal conspiracy charges and the charge of violating the victims' civil rights.  Two confessed.  Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the Mississippi Klan, was found guilty of giving the order, and spent six years in prison.  Seven others were convicted, but no one received a longer sentence than six years.  Seven were acquitted and three freed after mistrials. 

One of those free when the jury deadlocked was Edgar Ray Killen, known as "the Preacher."  Bowers in a secret interview later identified him as the chief instigator of the murders.  Bowers' claim that he had "obstructed justice" during the trials led to the case being re-opened by Mississippi authorities.

On June 21, 2005 80-year-old Killen was found guilty on three counts of manslaughter related to the Mississippi Freedom Summer murders.  He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.  

Atoning for the Past

In another respect, the South is beginning to atone for the racial violence in its past.  For years, no one has spoke openly of lynching, and no one was ever punished for these very public crimes that took the lives of thousands. 

In the 1990s, a group in Georgia came together to express public remorse for a lynching that took place on July 25, 1946 near Monroe, a small town outside of Atlanta.  Twenty white men had fired hundreds of shots in broad daylight at two young African-American couples – George and Mae Murray Dorsey and Roger and Dorothy Malcolm – on the Moore's Ford Bridge.  The men were not masked and their identity was known to all.  But they were never convicted, even after an FBI investigation, because no one was willing to risk their lives and talk. 

A witness finally came forward in the early 1990s.  He had seen the violence while hiding as a ten-year-old in the bushes.  His testimony encouraged local citizens to form the Moore's Ford Memorial Committee.

The Committee spent months searching for the gravesites of the victims.  It had headstones placed over them. It held a memorial service attended by 400 people, with a full military funeral for George Dorsey, who was a decorated veteran.  And it placed a state historical marker on a nearby highway to memorialize the lynching, so that it would neither be forgotten nor repeated. 

As a local newspaper wrote, "The best way to ease a wound is to treat it, not to hope it goes away.  It is time to heal."