“Murder has to mean something,” said Janis McDonald, a law professor at Syracuse University College of Law and an organizer of the conference. “We want to make clear to people, this is not finished business.”
The conference, McDonald said, is expected to provide the families of the victims of the mostly unresolved killings a forum where they can meet, exchange ideas and gain strength from one another.
“This is a start,” she said. “It is something to give the families the voice they deserve after all these years.”
Among those attending are the relatives of three people killed in Alabama during the movement, including the family of Willie Brewster of Munford.
Brewster, who was shot in July of 1965 by nightriders near John Hardy Hill in Coldwater, died a few days later from his wounds.
Three men were charged in the killing, but only one was eventually tried and convicted. The case nevertheless proved pivotal, because it resulted in one of the first convictions of a white man by an all-white jury in the South during the movement.
“I already got my garden in, so I’m ready to go to Atlanta,” said Willie Brewster Jr., who was 7 when his father, an avid gardener, died. “I’m ready and excited to meet those other people. I’m not scared to talk about anything, and I’m hoping that some kind of justice can come from this.”
Most of the killings represented in Atlanta, however, are unresolved. Indeed, some of them were never investigated. Most garnered only a passing mention in the press at the time.
Many killings were never investigated because local law enforcement was often unwilling or in some instances involved, while many local district attorneys were hesitant to prosecute because of the political climate.
As a result, dozens, perhaps more than 100, remain unresolved.
For several years, there has been renewed pressure to re-examine the cases – pressure from families and others, such as the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University in Boston and Syracuse’s Cold Case Justice Initiative, of which McDonald and her colleague Paula Johnson are co-founders.
Also, work by journalists, particularly Jerry Mitchell at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., has led to the successful prosecution of several cases, including the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963 that killed three little girls
The Civil Rights Cold Case Project, a group of journalists (including this reporter) documentary filmmakers, multi-media producers and others, notes that every unresolved civil rights murder reopened and successfully prosecuted in the last two decades in the South was the result of an investigation initiated by journalists.
The Atlanta conference, however, does come at a time when the push to pursue the cases may be waning. Recently, the FBI indicated it was winding down a three-year review of 108 suspected cases.
The family of Jimmie Lee Jackson – shot by a state trooper in Marion in Feb. 1965, an event that triggered the Selma-to-Montgomery March – is also in Atlanta.
The trooper, James Bonard Fowler, admitted in an interview with The Star in 2004 that he shot Jackson, but maintains it was in self-defense.
In 2007, a Perry County grand jury indicted Fowler on two counts of murder. The trial date has yet to be set.
Also at the conference is the family of Rogers Hamilton, an 18-year-old killed outside the sharecropping shack he shared with his family in 1957.
The incident showed up on a list of dozens of unresolved cases published by the Southern Poverty Law Center and has since found its way onto the FBI list, but little is publicly know about the case.
It was mentioned briefly in the press at the time, and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation case file consists of only a few pages. The case was never investigated.
“Well, we’re looking for answers mostly,” said Elizabeth Welch, a Cleveland resident and niece of Hamilton. “We know so little about what happened, and we’re looking to the other families to see how they have dealt with it.”
Welch was 8 when men came to the house she was sleeping in to take Hamilton away.
He was shot and killed less than a mile from his home.