Cold Case: Coming to Grips With Racial Killings in America

The U.S. Justice Department is about to conclude its three-year investigation of 108 unsolved civil rights era murders, including that of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot and killed in 1965 by Alabama state trooper James Bonard Fowler. Other than Fowler, however, who was charged with murder in 2007, few of these investigations have resulted in indictments. As the years have passed, suspects have died, witnesses' memories have faded, and vital evidence has disappeared.

Although far reaching, the department's investigation barely scratched the surface of racially motivated murder in America's recent past, partly because federal law restricted the investigations to crimes that occurred on federal property, and because investigators focused their attention on killings that occurred after 1945. Had the search parameters been expanded, even just a little, the full scope of America's long history of racial terrorism would have been exposed.

While conducting research for my book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt, I uncovered countless racial killings just in Lowndes County, Alabama. These incidents included racial pogroms directed at local black landowners and striking sharecroppers in 1888 and 1935 that were similar to what occurred in Rosewood, Florida in 1923. They also included several murders, including the 1931 killing of sixteen-year-old Neal Guin, who was tied to the trunk of a tree in his father's field and shot more than one hundred times. What's more, the identities of those who committed these crimes were no secret. It was common knowledge and widely reported that local white landowners Archie Bryant, Arthur Hall, and Asa May whipped black sharecropper Joe "Buck" Seles to death in 1933. Sadly, no one ever paid for these crimes.

The red record that I discovered in Lowndes County, Alabama was no anomaly. Throughout the South, African Americans were victims of racial violence, losing their lives for the slightest breach of racial etiquette, for being "uppity" in some cases, and often for doing nothing at all, simply for being Black in the presence of angry Whites.

Racial terrorism was also not limited to the South. It surfaced everywhere African Americans lived, from the Northeast, to the Midwest, to the West. In The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee, Patrick Jones documents several cases of racially motivated murder in that Wisconsin city, lending credence to Malcolm X's quip that for African Americans the South was anywhere in America below the Canadian border.

Whether in 'Deep South' Alabama or 'Up South' Wisconsin, those who committed racially motivated murder rarely wore masks; African Americans died at the hands of parties well known. Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan wasn't the problem, it was white landowners, shopkeepers, and factory workers, and everyone knew who they were. And in urban America, instead of wearing white robes, assailants often wore blue uniforms. Police officers in the state of New York, for instance, killed forty-six unarmed African Americans between 1947 and 1952.

A range of factors motivated those who committed these crimes. Some wanted to keep black workers from leaving their employ, while others sought to keep black families from moving into their neighborhoods. Regardless of the specific motivation, these racial killings reinforced the status quo, extending the life of segregation and perpetuating racial inequality.

There will be no justice for the vast majority of victims of racially motivated murder. But as the Justice Department closes the book on several of these cases, I hope we don't close our eyes to this chapter in American history.