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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