Coming to America  

By Fraser Grier

It is now a familiar sight to almost anyone reading this; the torchlit procession marching, with the bright orange glow piercing the night sky.


On September 19, 1947, a 22-year-old woman named Gisela Ingeborg Wermes disembarked from the S/S Ernie Pyle at the Port of New York, amongst a throng of people. She had spent eight days at sea.

The Pyle’s point of departure had been Bremen, Germany, with the ship carrying refugees who qualified for passage under the Truman Directive, an executive order affording priority to displaced persons from territories in Europe under United States military occupation. Between 1945 and 1952, upwards of 200,000 people would make the same journey as Wermes. Over 80,000 of them were Holocaust survivors.

Born in Wuppertal, Germany in 1927, Wermes had witnessed the rise of the Third Reich to power at the age of six. In the latter days of the war, due to its location in the path of advancing Allied forces, around 40 percent of Wuppertal was destroyed by incendiary bombing, resulting in a firestorm, with over 6,500 lives lost.

For most of her childhood and her entire adult life, the Nazi regime was the only system of government Gisela Wermes had ever known.

The prospect of marrying an American soldier, Charles Ray Renfro, transformed Wermes’ future, from a life of rebuilding in the rubble of her homeland to a promising new start in the United States. Now before her stood brighter horizons marked by the opportunity to establish roots in a prosperous foreign land, and forget what was left behind.

Having completed her voyage on the Pyle, her ultimate destination was the home of her fiancé, and the place where she would start the next chapter of her life: the small town of Sandy Hook in Marion County, Mississippi.


In May of the following year, despite the Southern heat of Marion County, a 32-year old carpenter, repairman and war veteran named Hosea Carter was plying his trade in his community, located in the town of Cheraw. Carter’s notable work was fueled by his efforts to support his wife and their four young children. Known as “Shant” to his family and friends, Hosea Carter was known for straight-talking, a quality he would hand down to his children.

Fate would have it that Cheraw was around a ten minute drive north of Sandy Hook, well within Carter’s reach for a job. Fate would also have it that a young, newlywed white couple by the name of Renfro would commission him in May of 1948 to fix an electric pump at their home. Fate would also have it that Hosea Carter was black.

On the day of the job, the summer heat forced Carter to break momentarily from his labor and rest. Charles Renfro, the head of the house, was 18 miles north in the town of Columbia, working at the lumberyard of his employer, William Ratliff Prisk. His young wife was home and had opened the door of her kitchen for ventilation, bringing with it the scent of food being prepared.

Whether the ensuing conversation between Hosea Carter and Gisela Renfro concerned one of money for food, or mere pleasantries as they momentarily postponed their tasks, is uncertain. However, the exchange was witnessed by a passing white tradesman, named Jack MacKenzie. Whether MacKenzie traded insults with Carter, or had merely seen him speaking to Mrs. Renfro in absence of her husband, is also uncertain. Nonetheless, in that moment a death sentence was passed.

Within twenty minutes, the time it took for MacKenzie to reach Columbia, Gisela Renfro would receive a concerned telephone call from her husband asking if she had been harmed. Despite her answer in the negative and Charles Renfro’s subsequent request for Carter to be left alone, two full carloads of armed men led by their champion sharpshooter, Prisk, with a reluctant Charles in tow, started off south in defense of Southern white manhood, under pretense of womanhood.

Word of mouth raced steel and rubber, and for a moment the former prevailed: “Shant, they are coming to kill you,” prompted his speeded drive to his sister’s house, where he thought a firearm was kept.

Having barely alighted from his truck at his sister’s home, his pursuers opened fire. Despite his chest catching the contents of a shotgun shell, expertly fired, he stumbled through the house and into the woods beyond.

His pursuers’ search of the woods proved fruitless, but with confidence abound that Carter would not survive nightfall–“Rat [Prisk] got that n****r”– the men retired.

It would be the following morning when a relative of Hosea Carter found his body. He had covered himself in leaves to hide, as he had learned during his training in service of his country.

In the aftermath, Gisela Renfro would be rendered voiceless. Rather, a sensationalist press would paint a picture of a gallant husband and his employer coming to the aid of a “German war bride,” dispensing of a drunk and lecherous “peeping tom.”  A murder charge against Prisk would be brought by Sheriff J. Calvin Broom, and dropped, with Broom remarking openly to the press that the shooting was “what any decent white man would have done.”

Despite this overt acknowledgment and endorsement of Prisk’s actions by the county’s highest officer of the law, the official inquest jury concluded with a timeless vow of silence in defense of the guardians of white supremacy: that Carter had come to his death “at the hands of persons unknown.”


Hosea Carter’s sibling, William, would be found dead shortly afterwards under suspicious circumstances. His second brother, Eddie, fled Marion County. His wife, Earnestine Carter, would be forced to work as a housekeeper for the Prisk family, out of fear of further harm to her own.

The lynching of Hosea Carter would be listed in a single sentence amongst hundreds of names on the Civil Rights Congress’ 1951 petition to the United Nations, “We Charge Genocide”, and then forgotten.


Sixty-six years later, in Chicago, Illinois, two of Hosea Carter’s children would speak at length to the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project:

“I remember my father, the day this happened…I was…six years old…”

His children would recall the evenings they endured without him. Up on the hill near Cheraw, they would see tall wooden crosses burning, men in robes, and a torchlit procession marching, with the bright orange glow piercing the night sky.


In the wake of the Second World War, as the United States was celebrating the victory against Axis powers overseas, a different war was being waged at home. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People declared their “Double V” campaign – victory against fascism and white supremacy abroad would not be complete without victory against fascism and white supremacy at home.

I remember vividly, being glued to the television screen at the inauguration of President Obama in 2008 as an undergraduate. Racism was dead in America, the cautious declaration arose, and the Double V campaign had run its course.

On August 10, 2015, I disembarked from a flight at John F. Kennedy airport to begin postgraduate studies in the United States.  America had declared it was looking forward, not back, towards a different future and I wanted to share in it.

Just over a year later, in November 2016, I saw the map of the United States bleed red.

In August 2017, I awoke to view broadcasted scenes of carnage and anguish in Charlottesville. I viewed death in the name of white supremacy. And there too, I saw the torch lit procession, and the bright orange glow piercing the night sky.

The law discourages one of the most powerful human acts: apologizing

By Kaylie Simon

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the need for sincere apologies for historic racial violence and apologies by perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment. In both contexts, the litigious culture of the United States interferes with apologies. Yet, those who experience injustice often yearn for an apology. Perhaps some of the individuals who cause harm want to apologize without fear of legal ramifications.

Jennifer K. Robbennolt, PhD, JD wrote in an article, Apologies and Medical Error,

An apology is a statement given by one who has injured another that includes recognition of the error that has occurred, admits fault and takes responsibility, and communicates a sincere sense of regret or remorse for having caused harm.[1]  At their most complete, apologies may also include promises to refrain from engaging in similar conduct in the future and compensation for the harm that has been done.[2] The messages contained in an apology can have powerful effects for both the person offering it and the recipient. In particular, apologies influence the ways in which people make judgments of responsibility—decreasing the blame that is attributed to another and decreasing the likelihood that the cause of the injury is viewed as something that is internal to and controllable by the other person.[3] Similarly, apologies influence estimates of the likelihood that the injury-producing scenario will recur; the apology is interpreted as a signal that steps will be taken to avoid similar consequences in the future. Apologies also have positive effects on expectations and intentions for a future[4] relationship between the parties,[5] play a role in restoring trust,[6] reduce negative emotional reactions such as anger,[7] induce favorable physiological responses in both parties,[8] and reduce antagonistic responses.”[9]

This is something we can learn from in the legal field. But how?

I didn’t learn this in law school. To the contrary, facilitating apologies was discouraged by the legal principles I learned. Traditional civil suits may result in financial remedies or injunctions. Criminal prosecution may result in loss of liberty.  The facilitation of an apology is not traditional practice for lawyers in either arena.

Many legal principles and practices create a culture not conducive to apologizing. For example, one of the strongest rights each of us holds is the right to remain silent when we are detained and questioned by law enforcement officers. It is a right that I cherish and know is fundamental to achieving fairness in our criminal system.

As a public defender one of the first things I tell every client, regardless of their relationship to the alleged crime, is “don’t talk.” Defense lawyers advise our clients not to talk to your family or friends, they could be witnesses; don’t talk to your cellmate, he or she could twist your words or share what you say with a police officer to try to get a better deal for himself or herself; and don’t talk to the police who are tasked with helping the district attorney prosecute you. Don’t even say, I didn’t do it. Words can get altered to suggest you knew something happened. Even exculpatory statements can hurt you.

Remain silent. Definitely don’t apologize.

In the criminal context, an apology from a defendant is an admission of guilt. The expression of remorse will not save you from a criminal conviction and to the contrary will be used to help the prosecution secure a conviction. While in some cases the showing of remorse may be a factor that leads to a more lenient offer or a lighter prison sentence, that is surely not a guarantee.

In the civil context, an apology can similarly lead to legal responsibility, so often you don’t hear the words uttered. People are concerned about getting sued and do everything in their power to avoid expressing empathy and recognition for wrongdoing.

Developments in the medical profession suggest there may be a trend supporting apologizing to patients who have been injured by mistakes. My dad, who works as an emergency room doctor, tells me that there has been a palpable transformation in the field; now doctors are apologizing directly to patients for mistakes. Some medical schools include error disclosure and apologies as part of the curriculum.[10]

In Disclosing Medical Errors the Right Way, by Jessica Berthold,[11]Dr. Levinson, a professor in the department of medicine at the University of Toronto Institute of Health Policy explained that patients want an explicit statement that an error happened, why it happened, the implications for their health, and how recurrences will be prevented in the future. Dr. Levinson said, “And they want an apology. Not a statement of regret like, ‘I’m sorry this happened to you,’ but a statement such as ‘I’m sorry I caused you harm.’” Dr. Thomas Gallagher, professor of medicine and bioethics and humanities at University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle noted that the actions after an apology are equally as significant as the apology itself.[12]

Allen Kachalia, MD, JD, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate chief quality officer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston explained some states have developed so called “I’m Sorry” laws that protect statements of apology or regret made at the time of an incident in an event the situation goes to court.[13] Perhaps these “I’m sorry” laws would be useful in other arenas.

Suzette Wright was recently interviewed on the New York Times daily podcast about her experience of sexual harassment while working at Ford Motor Company.[14] Wright tells the New York Times that she eventually joined a class action lawsuit against Ford. She relays a conversation that she had with her lawyer. The lawyer asked, “First things first, what do you want as a result of this lawsuit? I said, I want an apology. He said to me that will never happen so just give me a number. What do you want?”

According the episode, at an event she asked a leader of Ford to apologize. She received a couched apology, similar to the one Dr. Levinson described – something like “I am sorry you if you felt bad.” Nonetheless this felt significant to Ms. Wright who said, “The sooner someone apologizes and accepts the responsibility, the sooner the healing can begin for the people who were offended. And by them not taking their responsibility it leaves the women still very much wounded.” She said, “Growth and change happens when the responsibility is taken. So, if you are not going to do that, then the growth and change is not going to happen.”

There are already great models for apologies in the legal arena. A powerful example from LaGrange Police Chief Louis M. Dekmar for the lynching of Austin Callaway, 16 years old.  The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project investigated the September 8, 1940 murder of Austin Callaway.[15] Callaway was shot and killed by a lynch-mob in LaGrange, Georgia after he was accused of assaulting a white woman. Callaway, having recently been arrested, was taken from jail, shot and killed. State and local law enforcement failed to investigate the case. Seventy-seven years later, LaGrange Police Chief Louis M. Dekmar issued an apology in an African American church, with Callaway’s family present. He said, “I sincerely regret and denounce the role our police department played in Austin’s lynching, both through our action and our inaction…. And for that, I’m profoundly sorry. It should never have happened.”[16]

Austin Callaway’s family spoke at a Civil Rights and Restorative Justice project conference in Tuskegee, Alabama. They shared what the apology from Chief Dekmar meant to them. They were deeply moved to finally receive recognition for the lynching of their family member. It is possible that Chief Dekmar’s apology will inspire other police chiefs to recognize the historic harm by their departments.

In October 22, 1955, John Earl Reese, 16 years old, was killed in East Texas by two teenage boys, Joe Simpson and Perry Dean Ross, who shot into an African American café. The shooting was motivated by outrage that a bond measure passed to fund upgrades for a local African American school. Reese’s two cousins, Joyce and Johnnie Nelson were shot the same day, but survived. Ross stood trial which resulted in a conviction. He was given a five-year suspended sentence and didn’t serve time in jail. Simpson didn’t face legal charges. Fifty years after the shooting the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice project facilitated a meeting between Joyce Nelson-Crockett, Mayor Buzz Fullen and County Commissioner Mike Pepper. The officials listened to Ms. Nelson-Crockett share her experience. They told her that they were sorry this happened and they would help memorialize his life. I was in the room. Her entire demeanor changed. She told me that she could breathe easier after hearing those words. The local officials paid for and facilitated the naming of a street John Earl Reese Road. Like Dr. Thomas Gallagher said, the actions after an apology are as significant as the apology itself.

There are powerful international examples of governmental apologies. Recently, in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to the victims of the “gay-purge,” a government program that removed gay and lesbian people from institutions like the military. He said, “It is my hope that in talking about these injustices, vowing to never repeat them, and acting to write these wrongs, we can begin to heal.”

Prime Minister Trudeau did more than apologize. Canada will award 85 million dollars to compensate victims of the program and introduced legislation to expunge conviction of people charged under laws that criminalized homosexuality. Additional money has been allocated for educational programs and memorials in honor of victims who have died. This is an incredible model of national government action that not only recognizes systemic wrongdoing, but takes steps towards redress.

The statements and actions by Chief Dekmar in Georgie, Mayor Fullen and Commissioner Pepper in Texas, and Prime Minister Trudeau in Canada are examples of progress in how we respond to historical injustices. We need to follow the lead of the medical profession and Canadian government and find ways to give more space for apologies in the United States. As Joyce Nelson-Crockett knew before her passing, and Suzanna Wright and the family of Austin Callaway know, apologies are often the most craved and impactful response to grave harms.

[1] Tavuchis N. Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1991:15–44.

[2]  Scher SJ, Darley JM. How effective are the things people say to apologize? Effects of the realization of the apology speech act. J Psycholinguistic Res. 1997; 26:127–140.

[3] Id., Takaku S. The effects of apology and perspective taking on interpersonal forgiveness: a dissonance-attribution model of interpersonal forgiveness. J Soc Psychol. 2001;141:494–508.

[4] Gold GJ, Weiner B. Remorse, confession, group identity, and expectancies about repeating a transgression. Basic Appl Social Psych. 2000; 22:291–300, Robbennolt JK. Apologies and legal settlement. Mich Law Rev. 2003; 102:460–516,Robbennolt JK. Apologies and settlement levers. J Empir Legal Studies. 2006; 3:333–373.

[5] Mazor KM, Reed GW, Yood RA, Fischer MA, Baril J, Burwitz JH. Disclosure of medical errors: what factors influence how patients respond? J Gen Intern Med. 2006; 21:704–710, Mazor KM, Simon SR, Yood RA, Martinson BC, Gunter MJ, Reed GW, Gurwitz JH. Health plan members’ views about disclosure of medical errors. Ann Intern Med. 2004; 140:409–423; Robbennolt JK. Apologies and legal settlement. Mich Law Rev. 2003; 102:460–516; Robbennolt JK. Apologies and settlement levers. J Empir Legal Studies. 2006; 3:333–373.

[6] Mazor KM, Reed GW, Yood RA, Fischer MA, Baril J, Burwitz JH. Disclosure of medical errors: what factors influence how patients respond? J Gen Intern Med. 2006; 21:704–710; Mazor KM, Simon SR, Yood RA, Martinson BC, Gunter MJ, Reed GW, Gurwitz JH. Health plan members’ views about disclosure of medical errors. Ann Intern Med. 2004; 140:409–423.

[7] Gold GJ, Weiner B. Remorse, confession, group identity, and expectancies about repeating a transgression. Basic Appl Social Psych. 2000; 22:291–300; 44. Robbennolt JK. Apologies and legal settlement. Mich Law Rev. 2003; 102:460–516; Robbennolt JK. Apologies and settlement levers. J Empir Legal Studies. 2006; 3:333–373; Takaku S. The effects of apology and perspective taking on interpersonal forgiveness: a dissonance-attribution model of interpersonal forgiveness. J Soc Psychol. 2001; 141:494–508.

[8] Witvliet CV, Worthington EL, Wade NG. Victims’ heart rate and facial EMG responses to receiving an apology and restitution. Psychophysiology. 2002; 39: S88.

[9] Gold GJ, Weiner B. Remorse, confession, group identity, and expectancies about repeating a transgression. Basic Appl Social Psych. 2000; 22:291–300; Ohbucki K, Kameda M, Agarie N. Apology as aggression control: Its role in mediating appraisal of and response to harm. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1989; 56:219–227; 44. Robbennolt JK. Apologies and legal settlement. Mich Law Rev. 2003; 102:460–516; Robbennolt JK. Apologies and settlement levers. J Empir Legal Studies. 2006; 3:333–373.

[10] Jennifer K. Robbennolt, PhD, JD, Apologies and Medical Error Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2009 Feb; 467(2): 376–382, Published online Oct 30 2008; Halbach JL, Sullivan LL. Teaching medical students about medical errors and patient safety: evaluation of a required curriculum. Acad Med. 2005;80:600–606; Mangan K. Acting sick: at medical schools, actors help teach doctors how to ‘fess up’ to mistakes—and how to avoid them. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Sept 15, 2006.


[12] Id.

[13] Id.


[15] The cases of Austin Callaway and John Earl Reese are from the CRRJ-Nobles Archive.


If it Wasn’t for the Rain

By Noah Lapidus

If it wasn’t for the rain that doused the burning fuses, my synagogue would be no longer.

In 1943 my grandfather celebrated his Bar-Mitzvah at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Alabama. He opened his speech with the words, “These are dark days for the Jewish people.” Little did he know that fifteen years later, 54 sticks of dynamite would be placed outside Temple Beth-El in an attempt to perpetuate those dark days. The culprit was never identified, although the police strongly suspected Bobby Frank Cherry, the same white man who later murdered four Black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church. If the rain hadn’t doused the burning fuses then maybe Rabbi Milton Grafman, of the nearby Temple Emanuel, would not have so eagerly condemned Dr. King in a letter to the Birmingham News. Dr. King responded with a Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Southern Jews played an important role in the Civil Rights movement, as victims, as activists, and as perpetrators. Only by confronting this tripartite existence, in our past and in ourselves, can we confront the inequities of our present. That is why I work for the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project.

I never met Bea, but sometimes we visit her on Mother’s Day. She is buried on Birmingham’s Northside, not far from the cemetery where generations of my Jewish ancestors are buried. As the Jews sought a better life on the Southside, where we still live today, Alabama’s Black population flooded the Northside from rural areas. Bea’s family was among them. Bea, Beatrice Cox, was born in 1917 in Mt. Hebron, Alabama. Named for the region where my ancestors prospered in the Judean Hills millennia ago, Mt. Hebron lies on the northern tip of the Black Belt. Bea’s father was a farmer, her grandfather was enslaved. By age eleven Bea found herself a laborer, but in her teenage years the Cox family uprooted to Birmingham’s Northside. It wasn’t long before she was hired by my grandmother.

Dad says he loved Bea so much that it made Bubbe jealous. Bubbe, my beloved grandma, was born poor on Birmingham’s Southside in 1931. Her parents were raised on the Northside, children of Ashkenazi immigrants who settled in an era when the Northside was indistinguishable from a shtetl. Bubbe’s grandmother had witnessed her mother’s murder during a pogrom in Romania. Bubbe’s mother was only a girl when Leo Frank, a Southern Jew, was wrongly convicted for the rape and murder of a young white girl and lynched two years later. Considering her humble beginnings, I often wonder why Bubbe paid Bea so little, or allowed Bea so little time to spend with her own children. My Dad remembers riding on the back of the bus with Bea as a young boy, but we speak more about Bea’s famous fried chicken and mashed potatoes than we do about her plight, or the plight of her children. I wonder if Bea’s son would have still been imprisoned had his mother not been raising my Dad. I wonder if he has contempt for my Dad. I wonder if he has contempt for me.

In a roundabout way, it was Bubbe that led me to the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. When I was a child my grandma used to take me to visit the Old Jewish Cemetery on the Northside. She would introduce me to her ancestors while I collected their vital data with pen and paper. As my genealogical skills grew, so did my passion for social justice. Each time I visited the cemetery I reconciled with its surroundings, the place where my ancestors lived and where Bea’s posterity live today. I can’t help but feel that our past and present are intertwined, that I continue to benefit directly from the privileges my father was afforded at the expense of Bea’s children. I can’t help but feel that I might not be here today if the rain hadn’t doused the burning fuses. My primary job for CRRJ has been to track down the descendants of victims and perpetrators of Jim Crow era violence. Each descendant I find is one step closer to finding the victims, activists, and perpetrators in my life and in myself.

Facing our Inherited Past: Why Murders Still Call Our Name

By Rose Zoltek-Jick

On this eve of the New Year, we are all poised to look back at the past year and forward to the one ahead.  In the work we do at the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, we do this type of reflection every day of the year. Our work is all about looking back on history and bringing its meaning into the present to inform our lives moving forward. But our reflections come from the dark side of history. What is it that we want to learn from the murders of African Americans as lessons for today and tomorrow? Why do murders still call our name?

At the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (“CRRJ”) at Northeastern University School of Law, our students investigate cases of racial homicides in the eleven states of the former Confederacy from 1930 to 1970. We are building a digital archive of the narrative of each homicide, concentrating on the presence or absence of legal sequalae. Every case researched by our students is the story of the killing untold in any other secondary source. Together with cases previously documented elsewhere, our archive serves as the first full rendering of the depth and breadth of racial violence of this period.

At the same, we are inexorably building an archive that documents the parameters of the legal impunity. The perpetrators depended on the virtual certainty that they could get away with murder and by and large, they did. Not in all cases. Not in all circumstances. Less and less over time. But our archive is the twinned story of laws prohibiting murder that did not apply to African American victims of racial violence because punishment, or even the fear of it, did not apply to the perpetrators. Murder and impunity are two faces of the historical phenomenon we are tracking.

There is an intertwined legal premise about impunity and murder that is the moral basis for building this archive.

Every crime has a period after which the unlawful act can no longer be prosecuted. There is a limit, imposed by law, on how long a community can seek to hold someone accountable for the acts that the person is alleged to have done. There is an expiration date after which a jury of the accused’s peers can no longer be convened to find that person guilty and impose punishment in the name of the community. There is a time period after which we as a society are told by the law to let it go; indeed, mandated to let it slip into the past, unprosecuted, untold in a public courtroom, unnamed as a crime. There is, if you will, impunity for crime gained merely through the passage of time.

Not so murder. There is no statute of limitations for murder. So long as the perpetrator is alive, there is no such thing as being too late. A person can be accused and brought before a court of law to be held accountable until the date of his death. With proof beyond a reasonable doubt as the standard, a jury drawn from the community can find that person guilty and punish in the name of the community in which the murder was committed.

Why is this so; why is there this distinction in the law for murder? Why does murder not get the impunity that ordinarily comes with the march of time? Why does murder, ironically, never die?

This special status for murder traces back to the Bible, to the story of the first killing, to Cain and Abel. We were barely out of the Garden when Cain stalked Abel, following him into a field and killed him. The Lord asked Cain: “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain countered with his own question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Lord answered: “Your brother’s bloods cry out to me from the earth.”

When there is a murder, then the earth cannot rest until we ask what really happened and hold the person to account. The Lord knew what happened; He didn’t need to ask Cain in order to know. He needed to ask Cain in order to put the question to him. Cain needed to be asked and he needed to be told that he had to answer. Cain was not allowed to act as if the killing had not happened and he had nothing to do with it. The Lord was forcing Cain to answer for what he had done, to be called to account. Abel’s blood was crying out. His body was no more but yet his blood still called. The earth cannot rest without this question being asked and the person responsible being forced to face that question.

But the Hebrew is even more nuanced. The correct translation of our key phrase is that Abel’s bloods were calling out from the earth. Why the plural? Commentators tell us that it is the unborn generations of Abel who were calling out to be acknowledged so that their missed chance at life was also be laid out for Cain to answer.

What does this have to do with our work?

At the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, we collecting the stories of all the Abels and by extension, all of their unborn generations because the earth cannot and will not rest until this is done. Facing our inherited past survives the death of the perpetrator. Even when the law can no longer prosecute, without an accounting, the bloods in the earth still call. All that loss, all those generations that never were, all those families cut off at the root, all those communities where blood still lies in the earth. This Biblical passage is the moral impetus for our secular quest.

In almost all of the cases we investigate, there was no trial for murder. In most of our cases, there was no charge, no arrest, not even an investigation. No one was called to answer. Murder may have had in law no statute of limitations and those perpetrators lived a long life, but in the stories we are gathering, there was de facto impunity; no call for the alleged perpetrators to stand to account and answer the question of what was done to cause the death of their brother. The law did not do what law should have done, what it had the power to do because the perpetrator, the law, and the enforcers of the law did not see the victim as a brother, an equal member of the community, a fellow citizen, a human being. Law, even with its special distinction for murder, did not do its job. Instead of uncovering crime in the community, it hid it. Like Cain, all of the actors in power tried to deflect, as if the death, the killing, hadn’t even happened. As if it had no cause, as if no one had the responsibility to answer the call to judgment.

And so, the earth is not at rest.

Prosecution is no longer possible. But the moral imperative of our work is to resurrect the victims’ stories from the blood-soaked ground and hear the cries of the generations unborn who would have been our victims’ descendants. If we are to truly be the our brother’s keepers, then we are inheritors of this past, and it is our job, our portion, our mission to hear that cry from the earth, from the trees and swamps and prison cells where they were killed and answer so that the earth can rest.

The law of murder can no longer to its work; for that, we are too late. The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project was founded at a law school. We understand the limitations of the law. And so we do what the law of murder can no longer do. We document murders that were not called murders then so that the world can face up those murders now.

The earth cannot rest until we have done our job. Justice, restorative justice, is not possible unless the work of we face that cry from blood-soaked ground. We cannot do justice until we know. In this lifetime, in this country. Here and now.


Wrestling with History and Memory in the Public Sphere

By Scotty E. Kirkland

Mobile, Alabama, is a city with an abundance of statuary. Scattered around the perimeter of the city’s center, there are no fewer than a dozen monuments of bronze, marble, and granite commemorating towering figures of its three-hundred-year history. Near the waterfront, a bronze likeness of Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, the French military strategist who first claimed the region for the Empire. The statue gazes toward the open water, in the direction of Havana, where he died, where a duplicate statue resides. In a nearby park stands a stone statue of Bernardo Vicente de Gálvez, who in 1780 led forces in a successful, direct assault on Mobile, which was then controlled by the British.

Among the Civil War-era monuments in Mobile, the statues of Admiral Raphael Semmes and Father Abram Ryan are the most notable. Contemporaries heralded Ryan, a Roman Catholic, as the “poet-priest of the Confederacy.” His popular poem on the Confederate Flag, “The Conquered Banner,” includes these words about the symbol of the vanquished cause: “Furl it, fold it, it is best: For there’s not a man to wave it, And there’s not a sword to save it….” His statue off Broad Street portrays him in priestly attire, his cloak furled back, hands open wide. Busy passersby might rightly confuse it for a statue of a magician.

The statue of Semmes occupies a more prominent place. The bronze statue of the captain of the Confederate raider Alabama stands atop the entrance to the underwater traffic tunnel connecting Mobile to a long causeway which crosses upper Mobile Bay. Erected at the turn of the twentieth century, toppled by hurricanes, and relocated by urban renewal, the grizzled statue long ago assumed a deep patina, which was accelerated greatly by the application of a chemical meant to preserve it in the 1990s. More than a few people refer to the Semmes statue, at least in private, as “the little green man.”

About a mile farther west, along a trapezoidal greenspace between two major thoroughfares, sits an altogether different kind of public memorial called Unity Point Park. Touted as Mobile’s Civil Rights Memorial, the park commemorates the partnership between two of the city’s most celebrated twentieth century leaders, Joseph N. Langan, a longtime local politician, and civil rights activist John L. LeFlore. An imposing, bronze statue of the two men sits atop a seven-foot pedestal in the park’s center. They are depicted at the height of their careers, dressed in 1950s-style suits, standing shoulder-to-shoulder shaking hands, both intently gazing in the direction of City Hall, several blocks to the east.

It would be quite difficult to overlook the overt message of biracial cooperation in Unity Point, its underlying sense of southern propriety, or the place both men hold in the city’s preferred narrative of itself. The opening line of the monument’s panel quotes the Psalmist: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” Water flows over the statue’s base, which is engraved with carefully chosen quotes from both men which reinforce the park’s message. “You love your God and you love your neighbor,” reads the first quote from Langan, underscoring how devout Catholicism informed his public life. “So, if you love your neighbor you’ve got to see that he has the same rights as you have.” One John LeFlore’s quote stresses the necessity of biracial cooperation: “Blacks, in our estimation, must remember that they have not carried the ball alone.”

Marketing strategies and public policies often have messy intersections. But the history of the creation of Unity Point represents a melding of both in Alabama’s Port City, specifically to a time in the mid-1990s when the city’s white mayor sought to bridge differences with African American members of the city council by harkening back to the halcyon days of the partnership between Langan and LeFlore. It didn’t quite work and the statue was packed away for several years and finally erected in 2009. There was a deeper, more nuanced history informing the acrimony.

A few blocks west of Unity Point Park there is another civil rights monument, one decidedly less august than the arresting statues of Langan and LeFlore: An unassuming historical marker noting the tree where, in the spring of 1981, two Mobile Klansmen hung the body of nineteen- year-old Michael Anthony Donald, chosen at random and murdered, his lifeless body displayed in the tree, as an act of retaliation for the acquittal of a black man charged with killing a white Birmingham police officer. The case was relocated to Mobile because of pretrial publicity. Politicians and boosters maintained that Donald’s slaying was an isolated incident. In reality, the brutal act came near the end of a twenty-year period of often violent white reaction in response to rising African American political power in the city.

Shortly after my wife and I moved to Mobile in 2005, I decided to write my master’s thesis on the Donald murder, feeling, as I still do, that the story of his brutal death, and the dogged pursuit of the men who killed him, remains one of the most unjustly neglected stories of the civil rights movement. As I looked more deeply into Mobile’s racial history I found a more serious reason for the omission: Broadly, the truncated chronology of the conventional “Montgomery to Memphis” narrative, which bookends the significant events of the modern-day movement between the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, more importantly, the persistent notion of Mobile’s respectable racial past, which classified the Donald murder an outlier, an isolated event rather than a culmination of long-lived grievances.

The murder of Michael Donald is the most persistent – some might say inconvenient – contrast to the accepted narrative of the Mobile movement that is so well-represented by the message of Unity Point. There may be no greater illustration of Mobile’s complex racial history than these two memorials: the one the community has chosen to highlight and the one many would just as soon forget.

It’s easy to see why Unity Point has become the more acceptable narrative. In a city where biracial government had existed since only 1985, the story of John LeFlore and Joseph Langan quickly became the very definition of a usable past, a history from which political leaders and boosters, both black and white, could summon at will and claim for their own immediate purposes. In doing so, however, Langan and LeFlore are transformed into something other than themselves. They are no longer the astute political actors the historical record reveals them to be, both well aware of their roles, their different constituencies, and the unseen lines that circumscribed their relationship with one another. In this narrative, they become more beneficent than pragmatic. This is not to suggest that the contributions of both men were not significant and long lasting. They undeniably were. But, like all men, theirs were feet of clay, not granite or bronze, and part of a much greater cast of actors, black and white, men and women, native Mobilian and “outside agitators,” who struggled mightily against the status quo for the entirety of the twentieth century and beyond. One African American woman I knew, whose parents worked alongside John LeFlore in both the Mobile NAACP and a grassroots group he later founded, told me the sight of the monument made her physically ill; she would avoid driving by it whenever possible. To her, and many others, Unity Point is a “status quo monument,” not a civil rights monument.

But the respectable narrative represented in the statue of the two men is deeply ingrained, and like the statue of Semmes, bears its own retractable patina. In the decade I lived in Mobile, I participated in numerous panels, workshops, and conferences calling for a more complete telling of the city’s racial history, including a partnership with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Center, which highlighted several cases of racial injustice in the post-World War II era. We were a small but committed group, very few of us born in the city, a fact of which we were frequently reminded; had we but been born in Mobile, we would understand the contrast between the Port City and Montgomery, Birmingham, or Selma. “Mobile was just different,” one observer told me, categorically dismissing a ninety-minute lecture I had just given about the history of racial violence in the city of his birth. “We had Langan. We had LeFlore. We were a cosmopolitan, respectable place.”

The marker noting the tree where Michael Donald’s body hung was part of the most substantial Mobile history/memory project in which I participated. One day as I labored in the basement archives of the University of South Alabama, Dora Franklin Finley came in requesting photos of notable black Mobilians for her newest project: an African American history trail. When I told her about my research, she instantly recruited me (which is to put it mildly) into her efforts, claiming me as her research assistant and installing me on her board of directors, where I served for four years.

None could doubt Dora’s compassion, or her native-born bona fides. Her maternal grandfather was a prominent physician, her father a pharmacist. Both were active in social justice. From her well-appointed house on South Lawrence Street in downtown Mobile, Dora could point to the spot where she at the age of sixteen, her mother, and hundreds of black Mobilians were arrested in 1969 during protests in front of the city’s newly constructed municipal auditorium. The city hired black workers only as custodians for the entertainment facility, refusing applications for African American managers and ticket takers, all while making thousands of dollars from concert goers to so-called “Black Acts” like James Brown and the Jackson Five. The successful boycott and protest lasted for months.

After a harried night in the jail’s solitary confinement unit, stacked like cordwood with more than a dozen other frightened youngsters, Dora emerged and ran into her father’s arms. He wiped away her tears, steadied her young, frightened shoulders, and bestowed upon her an important lesson. “Don’t ever let them see you cry. Don’t let them know they can break your spirit.”

Her own activism, and the deep well of family history from which she could draw, ignited in Dora the indomitable political will to make the trail a reality. Funds were difficult to secure. One of the city’s black councilmen allocated a few thousand dollars from his discretionary fund for the initial markers. They were smaller than the standard marker to maximize every penny. Over the course of three years, the markers continued to appear, honoring African American notables, important buildings, and events. Soon there were thirty markers and a website, and Dora began offering bus tours to tourists and local schoolchildren. I can still hear her sonorous voice saying, “You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” She recited like scripture, because to her it was.

By the time the Donald marker was erected, the trail had a sense of permanence to it, including a coalition with the old city’s historic development commission. Funding remained an issue, particularly for a marker with such weighty subject matter. We approached Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center – who in the name of Michael Donald’s family sued and bankrupted the United Klans of America, whose members had carried out the murder. They paid for the marker beneath the tree. It was dedicated on a cold January day in 2009, along with two other markers on slavery in the city, thus tapping into the vein Mobile’s deeper racial history.

Dora left us a few years ago, after a valiant battle with cancer. The zeal with which she carved out the trail thrives through members of her family, who have picked up her mantle and continued the trail, which now receives some annual funds from the city. Chipping away at preferred narratives is a tough business, particularly in a place like Mobile. Persistence and open, honest communication are, I think, the only correctives. One of the people I interviewed for my forthcoming book on politics and race in twentieth-century Mobile said it best: “Mobile is an old city, with old values and old ideas; slow to change, but changing slowly.”


Questions and Answers on the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center With Shelia Washington

What do you seek to accomplish with your museum?

I hope that people will continue to learn how museums have been used to remember the past, and go into the future with a different outlook on life. When we see the past, hopefully we won’t repeat things that have happened. The part of the story I see is important to tell is that justice was not served even though the truth was there, six years later it was evident that the boys were innocent, but they refused to let them out of jail.

My biggest issue with the Scottsboro Boys case is it’s not recognized enough. For me, it was the first civil rights movement. People see Rosa Parks as the start of the civil rights movement, but the Scottsboro case received international attention. The International Labor Defense launched the first fundraiser, in the form of a stamp purchase campaign, in order to fund the boys’ defense team. The International Labor Defense wanted to make a declaration to the United States that “we [the communists] treat our blacks better than you treat yours.” The Scottsboro Boys’ mothers were allowed to travel with them on their campaigns. In the early 1930s, when the United States was suffering from the Great Depression, the ILD fought for the poor, and saw the Scottsboro Boys case as the perfect opportunity to make a statement. Ada Wright travelled to Switzerland at a time women had limited rights, and she was allowed to lead a parade there. The ILD snuck her into Moscow and allowed her to address the public there. This case was a first in terms of civil rights, including womens’ rights, and workers’ rights. It was the first time blacks and whites united for a cause.

Has inspiration been drawn from other global memorialization efforts?

I just wanted to ensure that the case was told to people. A local church came up for sale, and I realized the history of the church. It turned out that the deacon and pastor of the church had been the only two people who were permitted to visit the boys when they were being held in prison.

What sort of reaction did the museum generate within the wider community?

At the time I did have support, but not from Scottsboro, from all around the world. We have had about 10,000 people from 13 foreign countries visit the museum. We keep a record of everybody that comes through. Some of the powers that be in Scottsboro said they did not want Scottsboro to be known for the case. There were a lot of closed door meetings, sometimes with me by myself, sometimes with my aunt, and we had to respond to requests not to open the church. When I moved to buy the church, there were people putting in bids far higher than the offering price in order to stop me opening the museum. There wasn’t really support from the African American population, which is small here. Some of the older black people were telling me not to do it, that it was just going to stir up trouble, and to leave it alone. People who ask for directions refer to it as the “colored museum,” or “the black museum.”

To what extent, if any, did local authorities and politicians cooperate with your undertaking?

The city and the county have never given us any money. All our assistance has come from outside. We went before the city twice, and a representative told us said they wouldn’t fund us. One of the city council members was the former police chief, who informed us that for as long as he was sitting on the council, the museum would not receive any money. Some legislators initially offered to fund the museum, but when locals found out that taxpayers were going to end up funding the museum, they withdrew. We have tax-exempt status, and the city gives money to other tax-exempt organisations, including two museums, but we have never received any money. It was humiliating to go through all of it just to be turned down.

A Jewish family offered to support the museum if Samuel Leibowitz, the lawyer who represented the boys, would be recognized. We accepted some support from that family. I want to highlight the contribution of the Jewish community to our efforts. Catherine Schreiber, a stage writer in New York who wrote a Scottsboro Boys musical, donated the first $10,000 after we opened.

What further work is to be done in order to properly recognize the Scottsboro Boys’ case?

I think there should be markers and signage letting people know about the case. I asked for highway signs to be put up. The local authorities refused to put up directions to the museum. We have found four of the boys’ graves so far, but there are no markers. This is the next project I would like to work on.


Your tax-deductible financial contributions will help promote and foster a positive vision through historical, civic and educational endeavors. The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center is a subsidiary of the Scottsboro Multicultural Foundation. The Museum is registered as a non-profit, tax-exempt organization under Section 501c3 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code. To send a donation, please make check payable to “Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center” and send to:

Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center
P.O. Box 1557
Scottsboro, AL 35768


We Need to Know Their Names

By Kaylie Simon

Her name was Niece Brown.

Niece Brown was 74-years-old when she was killed by Officer George D. Booker.

Niece Brown was at home.

Niece Brown didn’t allegedly have a weapon or a toy gun. (Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling)

Niece Brown didn’t allegedly resist arrest. (Eric Garner)

Niece Brown wasn’t driving with a broken taillight. (Philando Castile)

Niece Brown wasn’t allegedly engaged in illegal activities.  (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray)

Niece Brown didn’t allegedly kill herself.  (Sandra Bland)

Niece Brown wasn’t “accidentally” killed after an officer reached for and fired a heavy gun instead of a taser. (Oscar Grant)

Niece Brown didn’t startle the officer. (Timothy Stansbury Jr.)

His name was George D. Booker.

George D. Booker was white.

George D. Booker was 26-years-old.

George D. Booker was off-duty.

George D. Booker was intoxicated.

George D. Booker went to Niece Brown’s home.

George D. Booker asked where Niece Brown’s daughter was.

George D. Booker beat Niece Brown to death with his beer bottle when she said that her daughter wasn’t home.

It was June 10, 1945. In Selma, Alabama.

Selma Police officer George D. Booker didn’t claim he killed Niece Brown in self-defense. He couldn’t, right? She was 74-years-old.

George D. Booker didn’t claim he killed her because he suspected she had a weapon. There was no evidence to support that theory.

Booker didn’t claim Niece Brown had violated the law in an effort to tarnish her reputation. He didn’t suggest that she brought the trouble upon herself. She was 74-years-old and in her own home.

How were Booker and his defense lawyers, Arthur Stewart and James Pitt to defend his actions? In his closing argument to the jury in defense of Officer George D. Booker, James Pitt said,

“If we convict this brave man who is upholding the banner of white supremacy by his actions, then we may as well give all of our guns to the niggers and let them run the Black Belt.”

In other words, let’s honor police officers who murder African American individuals for their mere existence. If we don’t permit this behavior, we lose control, and allow Black people to have power over their lives and the land they were recently forced to work. This argument was not only permissible in court, it resonated with the jury. The media reported at the time that “[t]he 12 farmers deliberated only a few seconds then voted to free [George D. Booker].”

Most of us are shocked and enraged when grand juries fail to indict officers like Timothy Loehmann who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Ohio in 2014; Darren Dean Wilson who claimed he killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in self-defense in Missouri in 2014; Daniel Pantaleo who chocked Eric Garner to death in New York in 2014; and when a jury trial results in an acquittal, as was with case for Jeronimo Yanez who was charged with manslaughter for killing Philando Castile in Minnesota in 2016. It is baffling to try to decipher how these cases resulted in non-convictions.

Wanton and racialized police killings of African Americans have occurred since the inception of policing in the US. We need to know the names of the victims and the facts of these historic cases that predated cell phones and body cameras. Without placing present day incidents in a historic context, we allow claims of self-defense and images of victim teens with marijuana or baggy pants to distract us from the system’s origin. We need to recognize our court system as the progeny of one that once allowed a lawyer to argue that murdering a 74-year-old African American woman in her home was a brave act because it helped to maintain white supremacy.

Too often the narrative around police killings shifts from the focus on the officer’s actions to the myth that the African American victims were responsible for their own deaths.  To unmask this myth, we need to remember Niece Brown. We also need to remember Della McDuffie and William McDuffie. Della McDuffie was 63-years-old and wheelchair bound when on April 25, 1953, she was beaten to death by Wilcox County Sheriff Lummie Jenkins during a raid of an African American cafe. A year into the investigation, her husband, William McDuffie, was mysteriously drowned after he refused to change his statements about what happened to his wife. No legal action was taken in either case.

We need to remember 16-year-old Benny Mitchell and 15-year-old Ernest Collins. On November 13, 1935, in Columbus, Texas a mob of approximately 700 people took the two teenagers from police custody and hung them from an oak tree. It was alleged that the teens confessed to drowning a white woman[1]. The boys were in custody pending legal proceedings. Because of their age, they were ineligible for the death penalty. If they had been convicted, the maximum sentence they could have received was confinement until age twenty-one.

County Attorney O.P. Moore said, “I do not call the citizens who executed the Negroes a mob. I consider their action an expression of the will of the people.” County Judge H.P. Hahn said, “I am strongly opposed to mob violence and favor orderly process of the law. The fact that the Negroes who so brutally murdered Miss Kollmann could not be adequately punished by law because of their ages, prevents me from condemning those citizens who meted justice to the ravishing murderers last night.”

Benny Mitchell and Ernest Collins, like many other African Americans were not afforded the right to due process of the law. Probable cause hadn’t been found at a grand jury and a trial jury hadn’t reached a verdict. Yet, a county attorney refused to recognize the group of hundreds as a mob and approved of the lynching as the will of the people. A judge praised their behavior in light of the fact that the law restricted the amount of time a juvenile could serve.

Statements like those of lawyers like James Pitt and O.P. Moore and judges like H.P. Hahn outlive the men who uttered the words. That our court system condoned racial violence informs why police officers today are so commonly uncharged, unindicted or acquitted at trial.

Nowhere in the US today could these words be stated in a courtroom:

“If we convict this brave man who is upholding the banner of white supremacy by his actions, then we may as well give all of our guns to the niggers and let them run the Black Belt.”

But the sentiment Pitt expressed in 1945 is today often masked by demonizing the victim and claims about self-defense, suicide, accident, and “resisting.”  This racist undercurrent, informs our judicial system to this day.

The cases of Niece Brown, Della McDuffie, Benny Mitchell, and Ernest Collins are from the CRRJ-Nobles Archive.

[1] Confession law today recognizes that coerced confessions are impermissible due to their unreliability whereas historically they were commonplace.

Doug Jones: A Civil Rights Deep Diver

By Margaret Burnham

Media commentary to the contrary notwithstanding, Senator-Elect Doug Jones’ innovative prosecutorial work on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing was not his only contribution to the civil rights agenda, although he is best known for that historic victory.  The Birmingham case is but one of many cold case murders that were relitigated as one feature of a larger national initiative to shed light on and remediate the anti-civil rights violence of the 1950s and 60s.  This movement, of which CRRJ is a part, has included lawyers like Jones, journalists like Hank Klibanoff (co-author of The Race Beat) and MacArthur “genius” awardee Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, and civic leaders like Alvin Sykes of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign.  In addition to the prosecutions, which yielded 24 convictions, our informal nation-wide coalition has secured federal legislation authorizing investigations, designed truth-seeking processes in partnership with affected communities, and allied with advocates addressing the current phenomena of racial terror.

Doug Jones has played a central role in this work.  In 2005, he testified in Congress at hearings on the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act.  In 2007, he addressed a conference sponsored by CRRJ at Northeastern University on “Crimes of the Civil Rights Era.”  In 2009, well after he left his government post, when it became clear that the Department of Justice was not vigorously enforcing the Emmett Till law, the purpose of which is to review and resolve these cases, Jones arranged for our group to discuss our concerns with Attorney General Eric Holder.  We met again in 2010 with the DOJ’s then Civil Rights Division chief Tom Perez.  Jones brought to these tables a clear and ardent voice, and the courtroom-smarts of a Deep South trial man acutely familiar with both the perils of resuscitating cold race cases, and the potential of the cleansing moments they might produce. Among his practitioner peers, Jones was a “must call” resource, for he knew things like how to pick the right jury, get around hearsay rules that prevented admission of decades-old statements from dead men, and use bespoke forensic tools to analyze deteriorated evidence.  But Jones also grasped the scope, scale and lasting impact of anti-civil rights violence, and the inherent inadequacy of the current legal instruments fully to redress the harms.  While they were – as he demonstrated in a Jefferson County courthouse in 2001 and 2002 – important, he knew that these historical trials could only partially “police the past,” and that most of these deaths would remain unsolved and the questions of family members unresolved.  It was this insight, and his long-term commitment to these issues, that the press reports about Jones’ prosecutorial work have missed.

Among Jones’ campaign promises was one he made to a group of New Jersey high school students.  This past March, Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush introduced into the House of Representatives the Civil Rights Cold Case Record Collections Act of 2017, which, if adopted, will create a single repository of digitized and computerized civil rights cold case records and render them readily accessible with minimal redactions to the public. The bill, H.R. 1272, was conceived and drafted by students from Hightstown High in Trenton, working under the guidance of their teacher Stuart Wexler. Oslene Johnson, one of Wexler’s students, explained the rationale for the bill.  “There are still families of civil rights victims that know nothing about what happened to their relatives; you don’t know where the bodies are buried.  And I feel like the anger and the suffering of the past will always bleed into the future if they have never been dealt with.  So… this bill [is meant to] do something for these families and to acknowledge what happened.”  The high school students have lined up a bill that, if it passes, should accomplish what Jones and others have been urging for many years.  The students will have the champion they need in the Senate, for Jones will lead that effort.

Even if the Birmingham convictions were Jones’ only foray into the civil rights world, that accomplishment makes him well-suited to be Alabama’s senator.  As the US Attorney in the Northern District, Jones did not really have a role to play in the recent prosecutions, for there was no federal jurisdiction.  The criminal civil rights statutes carried a five-year statute of limitations, and although the use of explosives could provide jurisdiction, there was no evidence the bombs or their components were carried across state lines.  But Jones did not step aside; rather he gained the permission of the state Attorney General to pursue the cases on behalf of the state. (His participation represented a refreshing reversal of the relationship between the state and federal governments in 1963, when Bull Connor and George Wallace condemned as “socialistic” the federal investigation of Klan violence in their state.)

The moment for these resurgent prosecutions has just about passed, for there are few perpetrators of the mid-century crimes still alive.  And critics have reasonably questioned whether the trials obscured as much as they revealed about the dynamics of racial terror in the 1960s.  As Jones himself pointed out at CRRJ’s 2007 conference, focusing as it did on Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, the two murder defendants on trial, the case left unilluminated the role of the state and the through-line between the violence of the period and today’s racial realities. But these retrials did create a meaningful moral shift upon which other reparative projects are being built.  And the civil rights era retrial movement explicated how race corrupted the criminal justice project while making clear that correctives, even when long delayed, are an integral part of the system itself.  The retrials performed the signal institutional role of purging the system of some of the most grotesque consequences of racialized justice, and for that Senator-Elect Doug Jones and his fellow prosecutors deserve credit.

For more on Doug Jones’ role in the Birmingham cases and the cold case movement, see Renee C. Romano, Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murderers, Harvard 2014.

Photo: Doug Jones and others, including the author, meet with former Attorney General Eric Holder on Emmett Till Act July 17, 2009.

Trump’s War on Black Memory

By Margaret Burnham

On June 5, 1964, a few weeks before the murder of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman in Neshoba, I sent my mother a letter from Jackson, Mississippi.  With other staff members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, I was preparing for the launch of our Freedom Summer Project that would bring hundreds of college students into the state to help register voters, run Freedom Schools, and pry open the Closed Society. Our office on Lynch Street, a glass storefront, was hectic and tense. “Two nights ago,” I wrote, “we got all of our front windows broken again, second time in three days.  We were all in the office and one girl got hit kind of bad with a brick.  The solution we arrived at was to plywood up the whole front of the windows. . . but we haven’t gotten around to it yet, and people have to stay up all night in the office because there is no way of locking it.”

It was pedestrian and quotidian, but those are the seeds from which history sprouts, and that is the history that, presumably, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum seeks to capture and honor.  It is a history Trump, he who worships at the altar of Charlottesville’s statue of Robert E. Lee and who loves the amazing things Fred Douglass is doing, will brutalize, deform and defame on Saturday when he attends the opening of the museum. It is likewise a history that is not for sale.  Not for sale because the voice of Fannie Lou Hamer soars higher than that of Mississippi’s Governor Phil Bryant.  Not for sale because the blood of George Lee (killed for voting, 1955), Lamar Smith (killed for voting, 1955), and Herbert Lee (killed for voting, 1961), seeping out of its doors and into the streets, cannot be contained in this or any other museum.  Not for sale because just a few years ago a 48-year-old black man named James Craig Anderson was murdered in a parking lot in Jackson by the (ideological) children of the children of the children of Thomas U. Sisson, who in 1920 told his fellow congressmen in Washington that “[a]s long as rape continues lynching will continue. For this crime the South [will] administer swift and certain punishment. . .” and of Governor James Vardaman, who declared that “every Negro in the state will be lynched” if necessary to “maintain white supremacy” and whose name until only a few months ago graced a building at the University of Mississippi, which banned Medgar Evers (he for whom the state named its airport) and Clyde Kennard.  Mississippi may be changing, but the invitation to Trump shows just how challenging it is for some in the state truly to confront history.

Trump’s visit to the two museums opening in Mississippi tomorrow on the occasion of the state’s bicentennial is an abomination on two fronts.  First, while its stated aim is to foster racial unity, the Civil Rights Museum owes its existence to the fact that this history would be barely visible or at best marginalized in the Mississippi History Museum.  (We are a long way away from “one history, one museum” in our country.)  The Trump visit poisons what should be a moment of deep reflection and celebration for all African Americans, including those, like John Lewis and Myrlie Evers, for whom this history is quite personal.  Secondly, his visit distracts from the important pedagogical work of the museum and instead has one counting the hidden costs of a bricks and mortar memorial project that leaves untouched the damaged lives strewn across the land today in the wake of the racial past.

Civil rights museums are primary sites for the exposition and deliberation of America’s segregated past, including its history of racial violence.  While they properly serve to educate a broader public about forgotten or distorted pieces of American history, they hold special significance for African Americans whose narrative is generally excluded from mainstream museums.  Black interests and collective memory are formed and reiterated in the depictions of subjugation, suffering and resistance to be found in the civil rights museums, which serve as a counterpoint to the dominant narrative.   In taking their visitors along the path from racial subject to citizen, the best of the civil rights museums engage all at once with contested history, civic division, and the false ethos of national unity.  When they explore relatively recent history, these civil rights memorial projects arouse deep passions for the subject communities. (We witnessed a similar phenomenon in the controversy over the multiple and conflicting legacies of World War II in the exhibit of the Enola Gay in the 1980s.)  The Trump visit constitutes a war on black memory: it seeks to strip from African Americans the right to tell their own story in their own time, space, and voice – to each other, to other Americans, and to their posterity.

To be commended are those Mississippians who fought for the creation of the first state-supported civil rights museum in the Nation, for this renders the history “official,” much like a confederate monument.  But as is clear from the Trump intrusion, it also situates the museum in a political space that brings its own pressures to edit or gloss over the story of Mississippi apartheid.  Moreover, many Mississippians pondered long and hard over whether the hidden costs of a state supported project were worth the candle. Acknowledging, as it does, and in some sense atoning for the history of white supremacy, this official memory project also competes with other reparative initiatives – some perhaps more consequential – to include this history in school textbooks, mainstream museums, and presidential speech.  Given Trump’s public statements, behavior, and reputation, there is little reason to believe that the museum’s materials will be used to address the structural legacies of racism that currently confront all Mississippians, the state with the highest child poverty rate and the lowest high-school graduation rate in the country that Trump will make great again. Unless we begin to see the events represented in the Civil Rights Museum as a continuum of meaning rather than a sequence of historical acts that have now been condemned, we will have lost an opportunity.  Trump’s visit starts us down that path.

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