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Their killers walk free Because murder has no statute of limitations, and political strength of black voters is growing, some unsolved killings of black men in the civil rights era are being revisited


Traveling along the back roads of the Deep South, a landscape rich in legend and history, one can still hear stories of black men meeting horrible deaths at the hands of white mobs, of men tossed from bridges, beaten with beanpoles or shattered by car bombs.

In scattered tiny towns, aging white men are living out their days shielded, even embraced, by their communities, despite suspicion and sometimes evidence that they committed these killings against blacks during the civil rights era.

Their presence, living freely and unpunished all these years, has magnified the grief of friends and relatives who mourn the black victims. It has heightened the anguish of justice denied. Until recently, these men have had little cause to fear a knock on the door, secure in the belief that the criminal justice system would never hold them accountable for their violent acts.

But now, spurred by grieving relatives and the growing political strength of black voters, some cases are being reviewed and some reopened. The South is slowly being made to confront its murderous past.

Over much of the past year, Newsday has been examining these long ago crimes, reviewing case files, inspecting records and interviewing relatives and friends of the victims and some of the alleged perpetrators, as well as FBI agents, local district attorneys and officials in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

Because there is no statute of limitations on murder, the cases are still subject to prosecution. But as cases are being reopened, many more lie dormant, not under investigation by local authorities or the federal government.

Asked why the government hadn't pursued the old cases over the years, Deval Patrick, former head of the Justice Department's civil rights division under President Clinton said: "I don't think there was any sort of policy or none that I know of. And I don't remember it being on my radar screen, at a minimum."

But family members of the victims never forgot, and in many of the cases that were reopened, they pushed authorities to act.

As the century draws to a close, it is difficult to imagine the extent of the brutality commonplace in the South three or four decades ago. It is painful for some to reconcile that the violence was tacitly or explicitly sanctioned by authorities.

"I heard as a kid growing up in Mississippi: 'It's always open season on black folks,'" said Vernon Dahmer Jr., the son of voting rights activist Vernon Dahmer, who was killed in a Ku Klux Klan firebombing at his home in 1966. "All of us grew up in that society and we knew."

"They said you'd get more time for killing a squirrel than for killing a black person," said Ellie Dahmer, Dahmer's widow.

The mastermind of Dahmer's killing was convicted this year. Another man, an executive with a major Mississippi chicken-processing corporation, faces trial next year in Dahmer's death.

Other white supremacists suspected of involvement in similar acts of violence have never been tried.

Some are defiant racists, like Ray McElveen of Bogalusa, La., who was arrested, then released for the murder of Oneal Moore, a deputy sheriff in Washington Parish, La.

Others are heavy with guilt, like Harold Crimm of Vicksburg, Miss., who faces trial in February on charges he threw farmhand Rainey Pool off a bridge in the Mississippi Delta in 1970. Crimm told investigators that for 28 years he had thought of Rainey Pool every day, according to the prosecutor. Nevertheless, Crimm has pleaded not guilty. While some victims were, like Medgar Evers and Dahmer, leaders in the civil rights struggle, others were ordinary citizens living workaday lives. Some took minor stands for equality of their people. Others violated some ill-defined taboos that white Southern society had established for black social behavior. Still others were caught in the cross-fire of civil upheaval.

Some of the victims

Among the victims are:

* Oneal Moore, killed in a barrage of gunfire on a dark Louisiana highway in 1965, a year after he had been named one of the area's first black deputy sheriffs. "I think I could die in peace if they'd actually punish somebody for what they did," said Creed Rogers, his black partner, who lost an eye in the assault. The Anti-Defamation League is pushing for the case to be reopened. McElveen remains a suspect.

* Wharlest Jackson, a rubber company worker and civil rights activist in Natchez, Miss., killed in 1967 in a truck bombing so severe the seat springs were pushed through his chest. "It would be healing for me just to know who did it," said his daughter, Denise Ford. The Natchez police department has reopened that case, but, possibly, too late. One of the primary suspects is dead.

* Charles Moore, killed in a senseless act in 1964 when a mob of white thugs beat him to death with beanpoles deep in a national forest, then threw his body into a sluggish back channel of the Mississsippi River. A prosecutor in Natchez, Miss., has begun to look into that case, in which one man confessed, two were arrested, but none was tried. "I'm seeking justice now, not revenge," said Thomas Moore, his brother, who harbored thoughts for years of killing one of the men he suspected in his brother's death.

* Ben Chester White, kidnapped from his home near Natchez, Miss., in 1966, then fatally shot by three men with white supremacist leanings. Although two confessed, juries released them. A civil jury awarded White's family $1 million, but not a penny was paid. Ernest Avants, the defendant who is still living, boasts that he avoided paying the penalty by placing his assets in his first wife's name.

* Benjamin Brown, a civil rights worker killed by police during a student uprising near Jackson State College in 1967. With its first black mayor in history, the city of Jackson, Miss., has reopened its investigation. Some evidence points to the city's former police chief, who denies he fired the fatal shot. "As long as there's breath in my body, I'll never stop saying it was wrong," said his mother, Ollie Mae Brown, 86.

* Rainey Pool, a one-armed farmhand beaten bloody in the dusty Delta town of Louise, Miss., then heaved from a bridge to his death. Five white men face trial in February for his 28-year-old murder. "If they can do something about it, well do something about it," said his widow, Bettie Pool. "If they can't, they'll have to leave it alone. All I can do is put my trust in the Lord." Each of the suspects has claimed innocence.

Like Bettie Pool, many of the victims' families have for years leaned on a steadfast belief that God would levy retribution. Some have lain awake nights, imagining revenge, never daring to dream that authorities would right the wrongs on this Earth.

Others are resigned to the fact that, barring a miracle, the mystery of their loved ones' deaths will never be solved.

They are people like Orlamburs Phipps, whose brother-in-law, paper mill worker Clifton Walker, was shot in the back, then left to die on Poor House Road near Woodville, Miss., in a killing that a former police chief says was racially motivated. The official said he believed Walker was killed by white co-workers because they thought his wife was white.

"I heard they blocked the road so he couldn't get by," said Phipps. "They practically blew his head off." Phipps said little investigation was ever done.

"They pretended to be doing all they could, of course," he said. "It was dropped and nothing was ever solved. Nothing was ever mentioned."

Local authorities say they can find no investigative file in Walker's death.

In Belzoni, Miss., Dr. Ronald Myers has pushed for years to have authorities reopen the case of the Rev. George Lee, who was killed in 1955 for his voting rights activities.

"I asked for his case to be reopened," said Myers, head of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization founded by Martin Luther King Jr. "The FBI said it was a cold trail. They did come up. They went to talk to the sheriff. We still want to see George Lee's murderer brought to justice."

The 20th-century atrocities were rooted in slavery and the South's post-Reconstruction era, as whites struggled to maintain an economic and social system based on a plantation model with blacks permanently at the bottom.

The Jim Crow system was cemented in place by violence and the weight of law. From 1882 to 1950, 3,436 black people were lynched in America, according to the Tuskegee Institute. Most of the lynchings occurred in the Deep South.

Lynchings were carried out publicly until the 1940s and required the sanction of the local community, said historian Jack E. Davis of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"By World War II, the American people, including Southern whites, simply would no longer tolerate the ritualistic form of lynching," Davis said.

A different type of killing took over, less public and without official community approval. Of these more recent killings, "many were publicly condemned, even as the condemnation was disingenuous," Davis said.

As the civil rights movement gained momentum after World War II, many whites believed economic and social survival still depended on a separate and unequal system, in which blacks were barred from most public facilities, restaurants, voter booths and many jobs.

"So much was dependent on keeping the blacks in line so they could go out and get the cotton," said Myers.

Even the all-black schools catered to cotton growers, devising schedules that allowed students to be dismissed during harvest season.

The system required a certain etiquette of blacks. Vernon Dahmer Jr., 69, remembers how, as a young man, he was expected to address a white teen-age acquaintance, not by his first name, Ray, but as "Mr. Ray."

The mere act of entering a white-owned coffee shop through the front door could land a black man in jail.

For many African-Americans living in the South, the only way out of this system was a train or bus ticket north to a factory job in Detroit or Chicago.

The Emmett Till case

Emmett Till's family had joined that exodus, and Till spent his boyhood in a working-class section of Chicago. The teen-ager was unfamiliar with the strict social mores of the South when he visited relatives in Money, Miss., in 1955. His unfamiliarity with those customs cost Till his life. When he allegedly called a white store clerk "baby," it outraged her husband, Roy Bryant. Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, allegedly came to the family's rural shanty to roust Till out of bed and drag him away. Till's body was found three days later, a gunshot wound to the skull.

In a case that drew international attention, Bryant and Milam were tried for killing Till, but the all-white jury found them not guilty.

Milam confessed to the killing in an interview with Look magazine shortly after the trial, detailing how he and Bryant had beaten Till, shot him, tied his body to a cotton gin fan and thrown it into the Tallahatchie River.

Bryant died years ago, but Milam continued living openly in the same community until last year.

"It was incredible to me that the man who admittedly killed Emmett Till and who sold his story to Look magazine lived in Sunflower County until last summer and was never punished," said Mississippi state Sen. Johnnie Walls.

The Till case outraged the nation, but the killings went on. After Till came other widely publicized cases. Among them were the four little girls killed in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, Medgar Evers' murder in Jackson, Miss., that same year, the three civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964 and Dahmer in Hatttiesburg, Miss., in 1966.

With many Southern law enforcement agencies infiltrated by the Klan, and other police sympathetic to their cause, the investigations were often cursory. When trials occurred they were mostly before all-white juries, and not-guilty verdicts were almost preordained.

The FBI, under the leadership of Director J. Edgar Hoover, was criticized for its failure to aggressively pursue the cases.

The agency focused tremendous energy, it was later revealed, on monitoring the activities of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., who Hoover charged was engaged in a communist conspiracy.

"The civil rights movement had no fiercer enemy than J. Edgar Hoover," said Morris Dees, head of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and files civil lawsuits to redress hate crimes.

In rare cases in which the perpetrators were tried, often when the Justice Department stepped in, often Klan-rigged juries found them not guilty, or, rarely, convicted them of minor charges.

"You just have to realize how the Klan operated," said former Alabama Attorney General Richmond Flowers, who brought charges against Thomas Coleman, a Hayneville, Ala., highway engineer, for the 1965 killing of seminarian Jonathan Daniels, who had come south from Massachusetts to work in the civil rights movement.

"Hate was running so high, so thick, hate, hate, hate," Flowers said. "They despised any blacks at all except those that said, 'Yes, sir. No, sir.' Anybody from outside, they just thought it was perfectly all right to kill them."

Coleman died last year, years after he was acquitted of killing Daniels.

As years went by, many of the cases were forgotten, even though they were still technically open.

"These cases had just kind of died out," said Dees.

No statute of limitations exists on murder, but until recently, little effort had been made to resolve the cases in which perpetrators were not punished, though former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened some of the cases in the 1970s. One of those investigations resulted in the murder conviction of Robert Chambliss for involvement in the 16th Street Church bombing that killed four black girls in 1963.

The reasons the cases were not pursued more aggressively are complex, said Theodore Shaw, associate director and counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

One is public discomfort, of whites and blacks, with reopening racial wounds.

"Somehow or another, there's a sense we should not dig up the past," Shaw said. "There's a sense that we have moved through the days when terrible things happened, and we should let sleeping dogs lie, that maybe we ought to let those ghosts rest. I don't believe it. In fact, we should be going after these cases with even more of a vengeance."

The Southern Poverty Law Center worked in the 1980s to refocus attention on the cases, erecting a Montgomery memorial to 40 men, women and children who were killed. The organization also published a book, "Free at Last," that detailed their stories.

Of the 40 people listed on the memorial in Montgomery, 25 died in Alabama and Mississippi, the two states where stalwart white supremacists defended the status quo most violently, historians say.

The bulk of those 40 cases never resulted in punishment for the perpetrators. In only six of the cases was a defendant convicted of murder. Of the six murder convictions, two occurred three decades after the crimes, when families of the victims appealed to local prosecutors for action.

Life term for de la Beckwith

One was in 1994, when white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith was given a life term for the killing of Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in 1963. The second was this year, when Mississippi Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers was convicted for killing voting rights activist Vernon Dahmer in 1966.

The cases pose difficult obstacles for prosecutors. Witnesses are often dead, and those who have survived are forgetful. Physical evidence has disappeared or, in some cases, was destroyed in routine purges. Constitutional questions loom involving the right to speedy trial.

What's more, there is no federal jurisdiction in murder cases, so, if they are involved, federal investigators must work with local prosecutors to bring charges, creating bureaucratic problems. Civil rights laws, the basis for some federal trials on the crimes during the 1960s, have a 10-year statute of limitations and can no longer be used in the crimes.

Some local prosecutors have criticized the Justice Department's slowness to get involved in old cases.

"I just know that, although we truly eventually obtained their assistance, it just took a long time to do," said Bobby DeLaughter, an assistant district attorney in Jackson, Miss., who led the prosecution of de la Beckwith in Evers' murder. "I'm not saying they were reluctant, but there was an awful lot of tape that had to be cut through to get the things we needed."

However, some local FBI offices have shown a willingness to tackle the cases.

"To the FBI's credit, they've made tremendous strides," Dees said.

In Birmingham, the FBI has, once again, reopened the 16th Street church bombing case, attempting to bring charges against three never-tried suspects. Rob Langford, then the FBI agent in charge in Birmingham, moved to revive the case in 1995 after black leaders there complained about FBI inaction.

"This is going to be a tough case to make," Langford said in a recent interview. "A lot of people died. Witnesses died. Other witnesses in the file had never been talked to. That was always my hope, that witnesses who wouldn't talk, would now talk."

Langford retired from the FBI in 1997, but a grand jury was convened in October to hear evidence in the case, said Craig Dahle, an FBI spokesman.

In 1989 in Louisiana, the FBI reopened the investigation into Deputy Sheriff Oneal Moore's 1965 slaying. Based on a confidential informant's tip, the FBI dug up a concrete slab where weapons used to kill Moore were supposedly buried. The search turned up nothing.

This year, the Anti-Defamation League's New Orleans office has worked to develop evidence to persuade authorities to reopen the case, said Jerry Himelstein, the league's South Central regional director.

"Pursuing justice in these cases is certainly a goal of the ADL," said Himelstein, whose organization filed a brief with the Mississippi Supreme Court supporting Beckwith's conviction and, more recently, assisted prosecutors in Bowers' trial.

New interest shown

Other local prosecutors and investigators also are showing new interest in the cases.

In Montgomery, District Attorney Ellen Brooks is reviewing the case of Willie Edwards, a rookie truck driver for Winn-Dixie supermarkets who was forced to jump to his death off a bridge by Klansmen in 1957.

Edwards' death had been treated as an accident until 1976, when the state attorney general's office began to investigate and found it was racially motivated.

"Willie Edwards' father always said his son would not have abandoned his truck," Baxley said recently. "He knew his son was murdered, but nobody would ever pay him any attention."

Raymond Britt confessed to the crime and agreed to testify for Baxley against three other Klansmen. However, a judge dismissed the case before it could go to trial, on the grounds that Baxley's office could not prove that Edwards' death was a result of drowning.

When Brooks agreed to review the case this year, her first act was to exhume Edwards' remains, with a hope toward refiling charges. Using modern forensic testing, the local coroner was able to establish the cause of death as drowning.

In Mississippi, Natchez prosecutor Ronnie Harper is looking into two cases. One is the 1967 truck-bombing death of Wharlest Jackson, the treasurer for the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

No one was ever arrested for that crime, believed to have been committed by some of Jackson's racist co-workers at the Armstrong Tire & Rubber factory, where the bomb was planted.

Harper has also begun to look into the 1964 slaying of Charles Moore and Henry Dee in Meadville, Miss., in which a motive has never been fully explained. Two suspects were taken into custody in that case in 1964 - Charles Edwards and James Ford Seale.

Edwards confessed to troopers for the Mississippi Highway Patrol that he and Seale, along with several other men, had taken Moore and Dee into the woods and beaten them. A justice of the peace released Edwards and Seale, who are still alive.

In Woodville, Miss., where paper mill worker Clifton Walker was killed in 1964, there is little chance that his slaying will be solved.

"I would like to know what happened," said Orlamburs Phipps, Walker's brother-in-law. "After 30 years, I guess everyone who had a hand in it is either dead or they're not going to talk."

But civil rights leaders compare the cases to festering sores that must be healed. Without such healing, they believe, more cordial relationships among blacks and whites in the South will be difficult.

"We can't go forward until we've healed these wounds," said Myers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

About the stories

During the past year, Newsday has been examining the often forgotten civil rights era murders in the Deep South, reviewing case files, inspecting records and interviewing relatives and friends of the victims and some of the alleged perpetrators, as well as local authorities in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. These stories and photos are part of a series that ran last week.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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