Transcript

Episode 3: The Success

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EDWARDS: My first experience with the Justice Department goes all the way back to second grade.

 

And started...with a movie rental.

 

JFK CLIP: If I give you the name of the big enchilada you’ll know, then it’s bon voyage, Dino. I mean like permanent. I mean like a bullet in my head, you dig? Does that help you see my problem a little better?

 

EDWARDS: That is JFK, directed by Oliver Stone. Nearly 30 years after its release, it is still in my top five favorite movies. 

 

Now, if you haven’t seen JFK, it’s about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the investigation into the case by then-New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who’s played by Kevin Costner.

 

Here’s Costner as Garrison delivering his closing statement to jurors in the film’s climax, alleging a government conspiracy.

 

JFK CLIP: Individual human beings have to create justice. And this is not easy...because the truth often poses a threat to power. And one often has to fight power at great risk to themselves.

 

JFK takes a lot of liberty with facts, and many people rightfully took it to task after its release.

 

I had to be 8 or 9 years old when I first saw it. Yes, 8 or 9. I had what my mom likes to call unique movie tastes as a kid. 

 

It wasn’t the conspiracies, though, or the parlor game of whodunit that left a lasting impression. What really struck younger me was the possibility that our government wasn’t telling the truth. 

 

Yes, it was only a Hollywood movie, but it made me wonder...if  the government was not 100 percent honest about the murder of a president — a white president — what else might they lie about?

 

So, soon after I saw JFK, I did what any precocious kid concerned about the government’s alleged role in political assassinations would do: I wrote a letter...  

 

...to the Justice Department. 

 

It wasn’t super long, and I can’t remember everything I said, but I was adamant they needed to do better. Not just with President Kennedy’s killing but with all assassinations: Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the whole list. 

 

After mailing it off, I waited and waited, but never got a response. My mom joked that instead of a response, the government likely just tapped our telephone.

 

Fast forward to the present and I find myself back where I started...with questions for the Justice Department. 

 

Within two years after the Till Act passed, more than half of the cases from the original list were closed. At least 60 because known suspects were dead and prosecution wouldn’t be possible. 

 

And eventually, nearly two dozen other cases where there were subjects still living — but because there weren’t known living witnesses, or because of legal hurdles, like statutes of limitations — the DOJ closed the case without prosecution.

 

So, a lot of closed cases, with no new, real wins. Except, maybe one. 

 

The only one that has been successfully prosecuted since the Till Act passed.

 

What, I wonder, can that case tell me about what the DOJ counts as a “success”? And what exactly did the FBI do to get there?

 

From FRONTLINE, I’m James Edwards, and this is Un(re)solved.

 

Episode 3: The Success

 

EDWARDS: I’ve talked to dozens of people while reporting this series. From those many hours of conversations, one exchange I’ve often thought about is from my conversation with John Jackson. Jackson used to be the NAACP’s chief policy officer.

 

Toward the end of our interview, I brought up the case from our previous episode: the shooting of Roman Ducksworth, Jr. — an Army corporal who, in 1962, took a bus home to Mississippi to be with his then-pregnant wife. A police officer shot and killed Ducksworth before he could be by her side. There are conflicting versions of what led to that fatal encounter. One story early on even speculated that Roman was shot because he refused to give up a seat in the front of the bus…still a dangerous thing for a Black person to do then in the segregated South.

 

But no witness accounts ever backed up that claim. It reminds me of the overused quote: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

 

Even though Roman Ducksworth was not engaged in activism or civil rights work when he died, to this day, Roman is memorialized as a civil rights martyr. 

 

I’m curious what Jackson makes of that.

 

JOHN JACKSON: Where there is injustice, there’s usually a narrative that has been altered. There’s a narrative that has been altered around the atrocity that occurred to Native Americans. There’s a narrative that has been altered around slavery and the slave trade. There’s a narrative that has been altered around many of the occurrences in these cases. And it still happens today. The narrative was altered around Trayvon Martin. There’s a narrative — altered narrative around Breonna Taylor. And had we not had the cameras present, there would have been a narrative altered around George Floyd.

 

EDWARDS: I needed to marinate on that after we finished talking. 

 

These days, when I hear the word “narrative,” I often think about police shootings. The first “narrative” we usually hear comes from the police. 

 

NEWS MONTAGE: ...And putting it in his waistband, police say they told him to raise his hands, instead… This morning Chicago police say they had no choice but to shoot a 17-year-old boy who threatened them with a knife...The police there, they say that Michael Brown was a suspect in an alleged robbery… In his grandparents backyard, the officers say they thought he had a gun, he was holding only a cell phone...

 

That narrative becomes the dominant one; what we see on the news, distilled and repeated back to us again and again.

 

Learning more about the people on the Till Act list has also made me reconsider that word.

 

Many of the narratives I read in their case summaries begin with something simple: stopping for gas, going on a fishing trip, owning more than one car.

 

The more I read...I think about whether activism is an easier narrative for some to take than how common, how systemic racist violence against Black people — just living their lives — has been in the U.S. 

 

Because that is the predominant narrative of the Till Act. 

 

Yet, for the most part, those cases have not been where the government’s succeeded at bringing justice.

 

Only one case has led to a prosecution and conviction since the Till Act became law.

 

A case that does fit that more idealized narrative of civil rights martyrdom.

 

Still, like a number of cases on the list, including Roman Ducksworth, this one is also a police shooting...with a disputed narrative.

 

Along with names like Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, Jimmie Lee Jackson’s case is one of the most documented and best-known from the civil rights era.

 

Jimmie Lee’s death, like in many retellings of his story, is depicted as the catalyst for the famous Selma to Montgomery marches. The “first martyr of the voting rights movement,” some call him.  

 

Yet underneath the martyrdom, underneath the narrative, there was just Jimmie Lee... from Marion, Alabama, a small town in the state’s Black Belt — 26-years-old. Working as a hospital orderly and other odd jobs. A deacon at his church. A son, a father, a grandson...and an older brother to his sister, Emma Jean.

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: He taught me how to drive. He had a truck, he would let me drive it and he taught me how to drive it. We enjoyed life together, fishing, hunting, picking berries, and all the things that you would find out in a rural area.

 

EDWARDS: Those are the good memories Emma Jean shares with me about growing up in Marion.

 

She also tells me about the not-so-good.

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON:  It was a segregated town in a segregated place. Oh, went to segregated schools. If you went to get some food or we went to a cafe you couldn't go in and sit down and you would have to go to a window and order and get your food and they would hand it out to you through a window.

 

EDWARDS: I think about all that’s changed...and all that hasn’t...as Emma Jean tells me this. I remember similar stories from relatives about Chicago back in the day...about not going downtown...invisible neighborhood boundaries you never crossed...businesses that were more receptive to us than others.

 

And I even think back to when I was in school...and how I usually never had more than one or two white classmates until I got to college....where for the first time I was in the minority.

 

I wanted to know how Jimmie Lee dealt with this aspect of life in Marion.

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: He knew his place. He knew what he could do and what he couldn't do.

 

EDWARDS: It’s why Jimmie Lee wanted better, Emma Jean says. So along with some cousins and friends, he started to get active in the movement. National groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Marion to help local people organize.

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: The young people, they knew it was wrong, but they didn't have anybody to lead them, to help them get organized until SCLC and SNCC and other organizations came to town. 

 

EDWARDS: Even though Emma Jean was just a teenager then, she says she would go to some of those meetings with Jimmie Lee. Voting rights became a particular focus for activists in the area. Jimmie Lee had tried to register to vote several times without success. 

 

EDWARDS: How did the white people in town just respond to the organizing and meetings and stuff?

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: Oh, they didn't like it. They didn't like it. Oh. And I guess that's why... they had to organize that particular night and, you know, things went awry.

 

EDWARDS: That night was February 18, 1965.

 

A local activist had been jailed for enlisting students to participate in voting rights drives. Fearing he could be lynched, hundreds gathered that night to march in his support. Jimmie Lee and Emma Jean among them...joined by their mother and grandfather.

 

The marchers gathered at a local church, and then headed to the jail. That’s when they encountered what a Justice Department memo described as “a wall of police officers and state troopers who ordered them to disperse, then began beating them with nightsticks” in a “melee.”

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON:  Nobody expected it because. People felt like, you know, this was their right to do what they were doing.

 

EDWARDS: Emma Jean tells me she lost track of her brother, mother, and grandfather. The three sought refuge in a cafe, but state troopers followed. 

 

Witness accounts about what exactly happened inside that cafe have varied — but by the end, one of the state troopers had shot Jimmie Lee in the stomach. 

 

The trooper said that Jimmie Lee had struck him in the hand, and that’s what caused his gun to discharge. At least one other witness confirmed most of the trooper’s story. 

 

But when the FBI interviewed Jimmie Lee, still alive in the hospital, he told them the troopers had beaten him inside the cafe and several witnesses corroborated his account. 

 

Emma Jean says she didn’t find out what happened to her brother until the next day.

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: I never got to the hospital to see him. Mhm. I never saw my brother anymore until eight days later after he had passed away.

 

EDWARDS: Jimmie Lee died in the hospital of an infection caused by the gunshot wound.

 

26 years old.

 

At his funeral, Martin Luther King, Jr. called Jimmie Lee “a martyred hero of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”

 

Just over a week after Jimmie Lee’s death, young activist and future congressman John Lewis would lead hundreds of protesters over Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The march ended in a brutal attack by state troopers that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” 

 

JAMES EDWARDS: What was it like having something just so personal, the loss of your brother, you know, become something very public?

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: Well, you know, being 16, it was, it was, it was still a hurt. It takes you a while to get, you know, to get over. And especially when you realize that the life was taken, just for nothing, just, because of something that he wanted and somebody didn't want him to have it, you know, and it takes… It takes a long time to get over that. 

 

EDWARDS: Losing Jimmie Lee caused a lot of hurt for Emma Jean and the family. 

 

The investigation that followed his shooting would not help heal those wounds.

 

The night Jimmie Lee was shot, Martin Luther King wrote a message to the Justice Department: “This situation can only encourage chaos and savagery in the name of law enforcement unless dealt with immediately.”

 

The DOJ responded that they had already started an investigation into what happened. 

 

Seven months after the shooting, a local grand jury in Perry County, Alabama opted not to indict the trooper. 

 

The trooper who shot Jimmie Lee was never fully named publicly, and there isn’t any record that the DOJ nor the FBI questioned him at the time.

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: That was a hard pill to swallow. Mhm.

 

JAMES EDWARDS: Did you think that was the end of any chance for justice? 

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: Yeah. Oh, well, yeah. We thought that was it. That was the end of it.

 

EDWARDS: For close to 40 years, that seemed to be the case. And in those years, Jimmie Lee and his death only grew in significance. Activists and historians call it, along with the Selma marches, the catalyst for the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965...signed into law less than six months after Jimmie Lee died.

 

The subject of countless articles, books, documentaries, and memorials. But, no movement on the case.

 

Then came 2004. 

 

Two years before the FBI and Justice Department would launch a cold case initiative, and four years before the Till Act would be signed into law. 

 

A reporter with Alabama’s Anniston Star, John Fleming, found the state trooper who shot Jimmie Lee...and convinced him to sit down for an interview. 

 

Here’s John Fleming on “Democracy Now!”

 

JOHN FLEMING (ARCHIVE): I managed to find him in 2004 and we had this long conversation, this long interview, where in the middle of it, he told me that he did indeed shoot Jimmie Lee Jackson, but again it was in self-defense. 

 

EDWARDS: In the article, the trooper was named publicly for the first time — James Bonard Fowler.

 

By then retired, he no longer said that the gun discharged accidentally during the altercation. He now said he did pull the trigger...but that Jimmie Lee was trying to kill him.

 

He told the reporter, “I don’t think legally I could get convicted for murder now no matter how much politics they got, ‘cause after 40 years they ain’t no telling how many people is dead.”

 

He added that his conscience was clear about the incident, because he acted in self-defense. 

 

EDWARDS: And after you first saw that, what did you do? 

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON:  I don't know what he was calling self-defense. I guess I just brush it off as being a lie.

 

EDWARDS: Did you or somebody else try to reach out to the authorities about looking at the case again, after that came out?

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: During that particular time, you know, it was like, who do you reach out to, um, who reaches out, nobody reaches out to you. So who do you reach out to? Um, it's almost like everybody's afraid to even touch it. What do you do? You just wait, hope and pray.

 

EDWARDS: “Wait, hope and pray.”

 

Hope would arrive by way of a local prosecutor in Alabama who also read John Fleming’s article and took up the case.

 

MICHAEL W. JACKSON: When I started off as an assistant district attorney, the first place I lived was Perry County, where this killing happened. 

 

EDWARDS: That’s District Attorney Michael W. Jackson. No relation to Jimmie Lee. He’s only the second Black district attorney ever elected in the state of Alabama and says he grew up being very familiar with the story of Jimmie Lee and its connection to the Selma marches. 

 

MICHAEL W. JACKSON: I didn't expect much because so much time had passed, but I did agree to open up an investigation. So what I decided to originally do was to go to Marion, in Perry County. I went down there. I sat on a corner of the courthouse and I waited for people walking by. And I'm trying to guess, you know, are they old enough to know about this in 1965? So when it was people that were old enough, I would stop and talk to them about their recollection.

 

EDWARDS: Michael Jackson was looking for people who might know something about what happened back then. 

 

MICHAEL W. JACKSON:  I was talking to all these different folks and gathering up evidence. I went through old newspaper articles, talked to different agencies like the department of public safety.

 

And that eventually led him to one important person in particular.. A nurse who had tended to Jimmie Lee before he died.

 

MICHAEL W. JACKSON: She was talking to him and she said, he told her that he doesn't know why the state trooper shot him because he was just trying to protect his grandfather and mother. 

 

By 2007, Michael Jackson brought his case to a grand jury, which ended up indicting James Fowler on first and second degree murder charges.

At the time the FBI — which had just begun its own cold case initiative — provided DA Jackson with access to archival documents and photographs. But he says that was pretty much all the agency did. 

The legal road would drag on the next three years, until 2010, when James Fowler agreed to a deal, in exchange for a relatively short sentence. 

NEWS ARCHIVE: An Alabama state trooper has pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the 1965 killing of a man whose death triggered that historic civil rights march... 77-year-old James Fowler pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter in connection to the murder of a Black man who witnesses say was trying to protect his family… Perry County D.A. Michael Jackson says time was a factor in his decision to accept the plea and the sentence

 

MICHAEL JACKSON (ARCHIVE): He’s almost 80, so if this case had been delayed some more, there was a chance he would’ve died before justice had been done.

 

EDWARDS: In news coverage following the plea deal, Congressman and Selma marcher John Lewis called the news a significant breakthrough.

 

JOHN LEWIS (ARCHIVE): There are so many of these cases, cold cases that have been lingering for some time unsolved. And I was delighted and pleased to see the defendant come forward. 

 

EDWARDS: Emma Jean didn’t celebrate. She tells me the sentence surprised her. 

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: If they had given him the maximum punishment. I would’ve been okay, but I don't think six months was a maximum punishment

But he gon’ say self-defense. A dead man can't speak. Uh uh. Anyway...can we move on to something else?

 

JAMES EDWARDS: Uh, yeah. 

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: [laughs]

 

EDWARDS: I thought by this point I knew all there was to know about the case of Jimmie Lee Jackson. What happened. Its historical significance. But there was something else I didn’t learn until reporting this series. Something that surprised me...and didn’t.

 

Jimmie Lee was not the only person on the government’s list the trooper, James Bonard Fowler, had shot. 

 

More than a year after shooting Jimmie Lee, he shot and killed another Black man...Nathan Johnson Jr. 

 

Out driving his Cadillac one evening in 1966, Nathan Johnson was pulled over by Troopers for driving under the influence.

 

A DOJ memo about the case says in the jail that night, after an altercation, James Fowler shot Nathan Johnson multiple times, killing him.  

 

34 years old.

 

MICHAEL W. JACKSON: And he gave the same story that it was self-defense. And he said that guy tried to grab the billy club and came at him. And that's why he had to kill him.

 

EDWARDS: Alabama D.A. Michael Jackson researched the shooting — also noted in reporter John Fleming’s story. And as he looked deeper, he said he discovered other incidents: the trooper had been accused of harassing an interracial couple and attacking a supervisor.  

 

MICHAEL W. JACKSON:  He almost killed this supervisor and that got him terminated, but he didn't get fired for killing people. 

 

EDWARDS: The killings didn’t diminish Fowler’s standing as a trooper he received some of the highest marks on his personnel evaluations after the shootings took place.

 

Nathan Johnson’s shooting was out of Michael Jackson’s jurisdiction. It happened in a different county. But Nathan Johnson's family reached out to the D.A. anyway.

 

MICHAEL W. JACKSON: I was in constant contact with them on that situation, but again, that wasn't in my circuit. But I did still talk to the family about all that and even put them in contact with the Justice Department for them to talk to the people there, but nothing ever came of it.

 

EDWARDS: The Justice Department closed Nathan Johnson’s case in 2011, concluding there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that James Fowler was guilty of a criminal civil rights violation.   

 

Nathan Johnson and Jimmie Lee Jackson were among more than a dozen cold cases from Alabama at the time. 

 

MICHAEL W. JACKSON: That wasn’t the only cold case around here in Dallas and Wilcox Counties. We looked into a couple of other cases after they did this opening up of the cold case initiative. 

EDWARDS: Michael Jackson tells me that at the time he really could have used some extra resources — namely money — to pursue these kinds of cases.

That was something the Till Act was actually supposed to do. Local law enforcement was supposed to be able to go to the Justice Department for grants.

The DA says he wasn’t aware of any formal application process, so in 2014 he wrote a letter to then US Attorney General, Eric Holder. 

Jackson shared a copy of the letter. In it, he asks for at least one million dollars. 

It’s a bold request. A million dollars would be about half of all the money the Till Act envisioned going to state and local authorities overall each year. 

But Jackson’s letter goes on to say that his office will “keep the process going no matter what amount they receive from the Justice Department.”

He says he didn’t get the response he’d hoped for.

 

MICHAEL W. JACKSON:  They said there were no funds available under that Emmett Till Act. 

 

He did not have that denial letter anymore to show me. But said… 

 

MICHAEL W. JACKSON: When you told you're not going to get any money, you don't forget that.

 

EDWARDS: Jackson said that after getting the Justice Department’s response to his letter, he stopped reaching out to them about the other cases he was looking into.

 

MICHAEL W. JACKSON: I think once I got the answer that I got I didn't bother to keep trying to get money I don’t think. I mean, if they said it ain't no money, it was no point to keep asking.

 

EDWARDS: This revelation prompted another question: what was going on with the money?

 

The Emmett Till Act authorized thirteen-and-a-half million dollars each year for the FBI and Justice Department.

 

Out of that, two million was supposed to be set aside for state and local law enforcement.

 

But year after year in its reports to Congress, the DOJ said that in fact “no funding has been appropriated for grants under the Till Act… and the Department has received no applications for grants from state or local law enforcement.”

 

The DOJ is saying they hadn’t actually been given the money by Congress to use for these grants. And, that no one had applied for them. 

 

I reached out to the DOJ about Michael Jackson’s request and grant funding overall. They declined to comment. 

 

But the issue of funding is something that’s plagued the Till Act. A number of local prosecutors have said they too had not been able to access funding from the government for cold case investigations. 

 

SYRACUSE ARCHIVE: Our goal is that today’s timely conversation will educate us on the history and future of the Emmett Till Civil Rights Crime Act.

 

In the same year D.A. Michael Jackson says he was denied, the issue was raised at a forum about the Till Act held by Syracuse University.

 

I came across a video of the forum online — it’s titled “Current State of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.”

 

In the audience are relatives of victims and someone you’ll remember from our first episode — Alvin Sykes, the original architect of the Till Act. 

 

About an hour into the panel, something catches my attention: Syracuse Law Professor Janis McDonald, a director of the school’s cold case group, shares a similar story to the one Michael Jackson told me.

 

JANIS MCDONALD (ARCHIVE): We’ve gone to district attorneys. They’ve said, “Well if I had the money, I’d do this. I don’t have… I have one investigator for my whole county. I don’t have the resources.” And we said, “Well, the act has resources.”

 

PAULA JOHNSON: This was supposed to be a collaborative effort.

 

EDWARDS: Professor Paula Johnson co-directs the Syracuse Cold Case Initiative with Janis McDonald.

 

PAULA JOHNSON: It was quite stark and startling to us that that just wasn't being done when it's expressly in the legislation. 

 

EDWARDS: In its own words, the Till Act says the FBI and DOJ should “expeditiously investigate unsolved civil rights murders”...and “provide all the resources necessary to ensure timely and thorough investigations.” 

So where was the breakdown? The DOJ, in its reports, seemed to be pointing to Congress.

And some former Justice Department officials we’ve talked to back that up — though they disagree that the cases overall didn’t have the resources they needed.

ROY AUSTIN: All cases were opened and investigated regardless of whether or not the money was actually allocated. 

EDWARDS: Roy Austin is a civil rights attorney who, among many roles in the federal government, served for four years as the DOJ’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General in its Civil Rights Division...the office that runs the government’s cold case program.

AUSTIN: I'm pretty sure the DOJ probably asked for all of that money. It's whether or not Congress actually then gave them the money. Oftentimes you have these bills that say that something is supposed to happen and Congress never actually gives you the money for it. Congress has to spell out kind of specifically where that money is going to go. If they don't spell out those things for your program, then you can't get it. 

EDWARDS: So Austin says the problem is Congress not giving the DOJ the money. If the DOJ had the funds, he says, they'd give it out. 

I wondered what Congress would say to that — especially those who championed the Till Act and saw the DOJ reports year after year saying the money had not been allocated. 

There’s one person from the legislative side who I regret not having been able to talk with: Congressman John Lewis. He passed away soon after I started reporting this story.

But I did get to speak with a colleague of his who worked with him on the Till Act: Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

SHEILA JACKSON LEE: I can assure you that we were disappointed and angry that these cases did not take the priority that this legislation intended them to be.

EDWARDS: Jackson Lee was on that Syracuse panel in 2014, and the remark from Professor Janis McDonald — about the inability of local agencies to access federal money — was directed to her.

Jackson Lee responded to McDonald that she believed there would be many members of Congress who would join the effort for better oversight of the Till Act, but she admits to me that… 

SHEILA JACKSON LEE: Congress, in its overall funding of the DOJ may not have been as focused on pinpointing those dollars. We gave them the tools. And obviously in the waning of their interests, they continue to diminish their requests for funding. 

EDWARDS: So a Congresswoman was essentially pointing the finger at the DOJ. The DOJ was pointing the finger at Congress. Either way, the millions meant to be set aside for work on these cases at the local level, seems to have never materialized.

The good intentions of the Till Act caught in bureaucracy and politics.

 

EDWARDS: Talking to the Cold Case team at Syracuse also raised other questions for me, about the government’s efforts. They’d come across more issues than just the money. 

 

Students working in the program believed the list that the government started with — the 100-plus names — seemed incomplete. Their team had pulled together nearly 200 cold cases that they argued should have been on the government’s list. None of them were. 

 

And, for the cases they had closed, Professor Paula Johnson and her students analyzed memos the Justice Department filed when they close a case. She says that what were meant to be full reinvestigations were often nothing more than paper reviews.

 

JOHNSON: We thought that something more in-depth was warranted as they were going over the cases just in the event that something was overlooked before. And we just didn’t have the sense that that was done. There was really a need to have people full-time on the ground in the locations where the offenses had occurred.

 

EDWARDS: It might sound naive, but I had imagined agents on the ground, poring through files, knocking on doors, maybe even standing outside of a courthouse like Alabama district attorney Michael Jackson, watching who’s coming in and out...  the tedious legwork you imagine cases like these — or any case — would require.

Our team asked former DOJ official Roy Austin how they approach cases. He says that in many of these cases, it was clear from almost the start that there would be no viable prosecution – and no amount of legwork or knocking on doors would change that. 

And he said there’s a dividing line in the Civil Rights Division between how cases are opened and whether they’re treated as full investigations...or what he simply calls...“a matter.”

AUSTIN: Sometimes you just have nothing. And it doesn't really make sense then to put a ton of resources into it. You know, you sometimes had… You simply knew that a certain Black male was killed. That's all you know. You don't have any police reports, any witnesses, anything, and you have, at times, maybe a story that has been passed down through a family. Someone was told that so-and-so was killed, you know, as part of a civil rights case. But you don't have anything else. 

And I know Syracuse was very critical of us at times, but from where I was sitting, everything that could have been done with those cases, by the time we got them, was done with those cases. 

EDWARDS: That all may be so, but there were signs that details had been overlooked…. My colleagues and I also examined each closing memo that was available. We found errors in nearly 20 cases.

 

Incorrect death dates. 

 

Incorrect locations. 

 

Incorrect ages.

 

Even, for some victims, names misspelled or misrepresented.  

 

Many of those errors can be traced back to documents that were given to the DOJ when cases were referred.

 

We reached out to the DOJ about these findings — and they told us the agency is in the process of correcting many of these errors, and going forward is planning to work more closely with families to ensure an accurate reflection of victims’ names.

 

EDWARDS: James Bonard Fowler, the state trooper who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, remains the only prosecution since the Till Act has become law. The case is routinely cited by the DOJ as one of its successes.

 

JAMES EDWARDS: How do you feel about the federal government, using his case to sort of show that this initiative has been successful?

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: I don't feel that it was a success. No. 

 

Jimmie Lee Jackson’s sister, Emma Jean. 

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: That's a case of success for the FBI. Uh, maybe it's a success because they arrested somebody. But as far as the time that was given that person for killing another person. And I guess that's, that's the one I think maybe they'll call it one kind of success and I'm calling it not a success for the family.

 

EDWARDS: Emma Jean Jackson tells me it took her awhile to learn to live with the loss of her brother as she grew up and got older. The impact is still there. I can feel it when she tells me the way she talks about Jimmie Lee to her own family.

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: I tell my daughter, when we talk about him I tell her, if your uncle is here, we would be doing this and we would be doing that. He would have been the one to teach you how to drive. Like he taught me how to drive. 

 

EDWARDS: Long ago she decided to pick up where Jimmie Lee left off. For years, she’s worked to register voters...particularly young people.

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: You know, these are the folks that we have to go out there and we have to get, we have to get, we have to bring them in and let them know why it's important, you know, to vote. You're standing on the backs of a whole lot of folks.

 

EDWARDS: Emma Jean tells me she thinks Jimmie Lee died for an important reason, but she still asks: why him? Why her brother? 

 

EMMA JEAN JACKSON: He was sent to be my angel for a while and then God took him back. So that's what I live with.

 

James Bonard Fowler, the former trooper, died a free man in 2015.

And by that time, the hope and promise — the very life of the Till Act itself was running out.

Lawmakers designed the Till Act to last for 10 years. It was due to expire in 2017. The number of open cases on the official list stood at just 15. 

 

So John Lewis, Sheila Jackson Lee and their colleagues in Congress introduced a bill reauthorizing the Till Act, with changes they hoped would address concerns from them and others over the way federal agencies had carried it out. 

 

CONGRESS ARCHIVE: For what purpose does the gentleman from Virginia seek recognition?

 

Madame Speaker, I move to suspend the rules and pass S.2854, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016 as amended.

 

The clerk will report the title of the bill… 

 

EDWARDS: The reauthorization bill was aimed at addressing concerns that the Syracuse Cold Case program, families, and others had raised about the Till Act. 

 

It would expand the timeframe of cold cases that could be added to the list by 10 years...from 1969 to 1979. And the new version of the bill would never expire. 

 

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

 

JACKSON LEE: Department of Justice is the people's lawyer. They have no right to do this in a second-class way. They have no right to ignore it. They have no right to fail. They have no right not to produce. 

 

EDWARDS: The people’s lawyer.

 

That makes me think of the Justice Department’s origins in 1870, and one of its very first missions. 

 

Protecting Black Americans...believe it or not.

 

I only learned about this mission as I got older...despite back-to-back years of U.S. History, African-American History, and A.P. Government and Politics in high school. We were lucky to make it back past the Vietnam War in our history books by the end of the school year, and I’m guessing that some of you listening can relate. 

 

But, soon after the Civil War, and the end of slavery, Klan violence had threatened Black voting rights. So the DOJ was tasked with helping protect those rights and more for Black people.

 

The right to vote...to travel without harassment or worse....to live fully and freely as citizens of this country…

 

...whether you’re Jimmie Lee Jackson... 

 

...or Nathan Johnson, Jr.

 

Now...over one hundred and fifty years later… I ask myself, did it ever live up to that mission?

 

To what Alvin Sykes envisioned? To the obligation that John Lewis spoke of?

 

Fewer open cases remained to help answer that question, but there were still cases...still some hope.

 

And if the reauthorization of the Till Act passed...new cases...cases that were still surfacing, waiting to be added to the list. 

 

______________________________________________________________________

 

On the next episode of Un(re)solved — an open case on the Till Act list.

 

LEE REMINGTON: I remember looking around at the, I just remember thinking, am I in the Twilight zone? This is so bizarre. 

 

KO BRAGG: She didn’t come home, she definitely would’ve come home. It’s not like her to totally not come home and not call.

 

FLORA SHANKLIN: Mama said, “No, what's going on? You having something done?” She said, “No I think my telephone was being tapped.”

BILL PATTESON: I wasn't satisfied. There is something still out there. There is something larger still out there.

1h 54m
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Lies, Politics and Democracy
Ahead of the 2022 midterms, a look at American political leaders and choices they've made that have undermined and threatened democracy in the U.S.
September 6, 2022