Use your voice. Say their names.
This experience asks you to speak the names of people whose lives were lost to violence — and in many cases, racist violence — during the civil rights era.
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
Ida B. Wells
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He was given leave to travel home to see her immediately. But Roman never made it to his wife and family in Mississippi.
Cordero grew up not knowing the details of his father’s death.
In 1989, he was married with children of his own when he received a letter in the mail.
After getting off the bus, an altercation ensued.
Accounts of the incident differ, but it is undisputed that Officer William Kelly shot Roman in the chest. He died within hours of his child being born in a nearby hospital.
The Sheriff's Account
Jackson Daily News - April 12, 1962
This article, printed in the Jackson Daily News, reported the sheriff department’s version of the events that led to Roman’s death.
Sheriff Ed Martin said Wednesday night claims by the NAACP that a Negro soldier was shot “in cold blood” were “ridiculous, unfounded, and untrue.”
The sheriff said his investigation showed that when the bus arrived in Taylorsville, the driver was unable to get Ducksworth off the bus…
“The policeman went inside the bus and tried to rouse the Negro,” Martin said, “who apparently had passed out from drinking.”
“The driver and the policeman finally got the Negro to his feet, walked him outside the bus, and told him he was under arrest and to get in the car.”
Martin said Kelly said when he attempted to pull the Negro toward the car, Ducksworth struck him twice.
Kelly struck him several times with his blackjack,” Martin said, but it didn’t seem to faze him.
“Kelly told him again, ‘You’re under arrest. Go on, get in the car.’”
“The Negro refused, then struck Kelly with a ‘Judo cut,’ knocking him to his knees. Kelly swapped his blackjack for his gun and fired a warning shot into the ground at the Negro’s feet.”
“The Negro said, ‘That’s no good’ and tried to grab the gun. At that time Kelly shot him. He didn’t know what else to do.”
The military police interviewed almost two dozen witnesses.
The Military Police Report
View the Witness Statements
In the military police report, obtained by FRONTLINE, nearly half of the witnesses confirm the officer’s account. They say they saw Roman hit the officer at least once, and that he lunged at the officer immediately before he was shot.
But the others said Roman was defending himself after the officer attacked him. Here are those statements:
Q: Did the negro attack the officer at any time?
A: No. He defended himself as best he could by striking the officer with his fists but only after he was struck on the head at least twice by the policeman, with some weapon. …
Q: What did the negro man do when the warning shot was fired into the ground by the policeman?
A: Nothing. He neither advanced nor retreated. He just stood where he was standing prior to the shot.
Q: Did the negro appear to provoke or invite the fatal shot by any action on his part?
Q: In your opinion, was the police officer justified in firing the fatal shot? Was it necessary, for instance, to protect his own life or to effect the arrest or to subdue the advances or attack of the negro?
A: No, to all of the above questions.
Q: In your opinion, was it necessary for the policeman to shoot the soldier?
Q: What was the relative size of the corporal to the policeman?
A: The corporal was a big man. I’d say about 6’2” to 6’3” and weighed at least 200 pounds. The policeman looked to be short and stocky, about 5’8” to 5’10” weighing about 175 pounds.
Q: Do you have anything to add?
A: I don’t see why the soldier was shot. He wasn’t committing a crime. He didn’t appear to be actually assaulting the policeman. It appeared to me that he didn’t want to get arrested and taken to the police station. It appeared to me that the colored man wasn’t saying anything, just shaking his head.
Q: Did you see the soldier attack the policeman with anything but his fists?
Q: Are you quite certain that the soldier struck the policeman first.
Q: Based on your observations of the incident, is it your opinion that the policeman was justified in shooting the soldier?
A: The soldier was not attacking the police officer with any weapon. As far as I could tell, he had no gun, club or knife. I do not believe the shooting was justified. I think the soldier was drunk and just scuffling with the policeman.
Q: Could you smell anything?
A: No, sir.
Q: Was he staggering around or falling?
A: No, sir. Not until they started getting him off and I don’t know whether or not he was sleepy or not.
Q: Was he in control of his senses?
A: I couldn’t say.
Q: In your opinion, do you think the corporal should have been shot?
A: No, sir, I don’t think he should have been shot and I don’t think he should have been killed, if he was shot. There isn’t any use to shoot a man.
Q: Did the policeman, in your opinion, use more force than necessary before the
A: He was hitting him with a blackjack. I won’t say he was doing it too much. It all depends on how much he had to do it. I don’t know how much you are supposed to hit a man.
None of the investigations led to charges against the officer.
A year after Roman’s death, Melva moved the family to Illinois.
In 2006, the FBI launched a cold case initiative to investigate civil rights-era murders. With the passage of the Till Act in 2008, the list of cases was growing.
Roman’s case was one of many being re-examined. But after a review in 2010, it was closed again because Officer Kelly was deceased, making prosecution impossible.
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His sign read “Equal Rights for All. Mississippi or Bust.”
A young Black man who went out for drinks with a friend
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Joseph Hill Dumas
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Roman Ducksworth Jr.
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Jessie James Shelby
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The Justice Department cites at least 60 victims whose cases have been closed due to the death of all identifiable subjects.
Select a leaf to learn more
Select a leaf to learn more
Case Status unknown
After Roman’s case was closed, the FBI hand-delivered a letter to Melva Ducksworth outlining the investigative efforts and their findings.
Dear Mrs. Ducksworth...
View the Letter
In the letter written to the family, the DOJ outlines the goals of the Cold Case Initiative and their work under the Till Act. They recount the details of the killing, and then describe the reasons they will not be able to pursue prosecution in the case. The following are excerpts:
Dear Mrs. Ducksworth:
We are writing to inform you that the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently conducted a review of the circumstances surrounding the death of your husband, Corporal Roman Ducksworth Jr., on April 9, 1962.
… This review was conducted by FBI Special Agents and an experienced “cold case” civil rights prosecutor. We have now concluded that review and wish to inform you of our findings.
… Once off the bus, Cpl. Ducksworth struck Officer Kelly repeatedly and Officer Kelly reacted by striking Cpl. Ducksworth on the head with a “blackjack.” Officer Kelly then fired a shot into the ground and a second, fatal shot at Cpl. Ducksworth.
… After careful review of this incident, we have concluded that the now deceased Officer Kelly acted alone when he shot and killed your husband and therefore, we have no choice but to close our investigation.
… We regret that we cannot be of further assistance to you. Again, please accept our sincere condolences for the loss of your husband.”
The letter makes no reference to the witness statements in the 1962 military police report, some of which suggest Roman may have been defending himself.
When asked about Roman’s case, the FBI told FRONTLINE it was thoroughly investigated, but with the officer deceased, there was no one to prosecute.
Too Late for Justice, but What About Truth?
Hear from the FBI
What should the FBI do in cases like Roman Duckworth’s?
Ron Reed, who currently oversees the cold case initiative as chief of the FBI’s civil rights unit, told FRONTLINE that he understands families’ desires for justice and closure after all these years.
He said the Ducksworth case was “thoroughly investigated,” but it came down to the fact that they didn’t have anyone to prosecute. “I completely understand and appreciate and would love to give the family as much closure as possible. But this is just one of those cases that we did have to close.”
In reports to Congress, the DOJ say that where they can’t bring prosecutions, they seek “to provide transparency to family members of the victims” and truthful accounts of what happened to “the greater public.”
But the Ducksworth family feels the DOJ did not deliver on that promise.
For example, they say that other than Melva Ducksworth, the FBI didn’t interview anyone else in the family, including Roman’s nephew who arrived shortly after the shooting and held Roman as he died. He told FRONTLINE that it was actually he who lunged at the officer, not Roman.
“If he was a witness to the altercation and the shooting, and he was alive and willing to be interviewed and was not interviewed by the FBI, that’s horrible. He absolutely should have been interviewed,” said Cynthia Deitle, who ran the FBI’s cold case initiative from 2008 to 2011, during the time the Ducksworth case was closed. She said they should have gone farther, even if there wasn’t a case to be made in court.
“We should have conducted a full and thorough investigation just to uncover the truth, that’s my personal opinion,” Deitle said. “I’m not sure how much leeway the FBI would have to pursue a case where no one’s getting arrested or prosecuted. You know, it’s not the job of the FBI to investigate a case where, again, the bad guy’s dead and we know he did it and he’s dead. It’s just, I guess, I always expected us to do more.”
Deitle and several other former FBI officials told FRONTLINE the agency’s resources and staff were limited. According to some of them, the cold case initiative was left to overwhelmed agents, who were often balancing current, ongoing investigations with the decades-old cold cases — investigations that were now mandated by the Till Act.
“The pushback that I often got was, ‘Look, there’s nothing that’s going to come of this cold case,’” said Deitle. “‘I’m pretty sure the person who killed the victim is deceased. I am not going to waste my time on this case. No one’s going to prosecute it.’”
At least 60 cases re-examined under the Till Act would eventually be closed due to the deaths of all identifiable subjects; 50 of those cases were closed in 2010 alone.
The FBI’s Reed said that overall this is not a reflection of a lack of effort or resources, but the limits of their abilities as agents and prosecutors. “We try very hard to make it work every time, but it doesn’t work every time.”
For her part, Cynthia Deitle looks back at her time running the unit with some regret.
“I will always think that we could have done more, that there was just that one last interview that we should have gotten, that there was one more door we should have knocked on,” she said. “I feel like I failed the families, I feel like I failed communities.”
Cordero Ducksworth says that if the Justice Department had asked him what he and his family wanted, it would have been to publicly correct the record — even if they couldn’t bring a case in court. They hoped the FBI would make clear that his father’s death was not a justifiable homicide.
In 1965, Alberta O. Jones was appointed Louisville’s first female prosecutor.