Episode 4: The HopeListen
JAMES EDWARDS: I did a lot of scrolling the summer of 2020. Definitely more than normal. I assume many of you did, too.
Threads. Rants. Photos. Videos. Even small pockets of joy when I could find them.
Then came the morning of September 24th, 2020.
ARCHIVE (BREONNA TAYLOR PROTESTS): Breonna Taylor! Say her name! Breonna Taylor didn’t have to die! Tell the truth… Breonna Taylor! What’s her name? Breonna Taylor! Say her name!
EDWARDS: The day before, a grand jury decided it would not charge three Louisville police officers in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor.
Scrolling on Twitter, I saw something that jumped out at me.
A photo from protests the previous night in Louisville. Taken and tweeted by a local reporter. Two armored police vehicles sit in the middle of the street. Red and blue lights bathe everything in sight. An officer is sitting in the back of one of the vehicles, holding his weapon and looking ahead.
Hovering above all of this is a giant banner on the side of a building.
On that banner is a black and white image of a woman.
KO BRAGG: She’s not one of those people that everybody knows of. There’s a very specific community that knows of her, mainly the Black community.
EDWARDS: That’s my colleague Ko Bragg. She traveled to Louisville to learn more about the woman in the photo — before I ever came across the picture on Twitter.
Her name is Alberta O. Jones.
The banner honors her as one of Louisville’s hometown heroes... and her death sent similar shock and grief through Louisville’s Black community fifty-five years before the death of Breonna Taylor.
Ko tells me when she began looking into Alberta’s story, the first thing that impressed her was a copy of that same photo on the banner.
BRAGG: It almost looks like a class photo. It’s like, sepia-toned, her hair is perfect. And she has this, like, really glowing smile and I just remember that. That’s what sticks in my mind — this image of like this young Black woman who was outspoken, returned home to Louisville to try to make her community better, who was found dead floating in a river in her 30s.
EDWARDS: That photo was also my introduction to Alberta Jones...and her case — the first one I learned about on the federal government’s list of civil rights era cold cases.
I’ve kept coming back to it while reporting this story.
Unlike the killings of Emmett Till, Roman Ducksworth or Jimmie Lee Jackson — where the authorities knew the person who did it — Alberta’s story is more like what you might imagine when you hear the term “cold case”: an unsolved murder with no official motive, no official suspects, an endless list of theories, and at the center of it… A trailblazing life cut short at 34-years-old.
FLORA SHANKLIN: She wasn’t just ours. She belongs more to the community she loved than belonged to us.
EDWARDS: That’s Alberta’s younger sister, Flora Shanklin.
For more than 50 years, she has not stopped calling for justice for her sister’s killing...while also working to keep the memory of Alberta’s life and legacy alive in Louisville.
Alberta was the city’s first female prosecutor, and the more I learned about her, the more I wanted to know. About her life — and the circumstances surrounding her murder.
After looking at so many Till Act cases that had been closed, I wanted to check out one of the few that remain open.
Could Alberta Jones’ story be different from the ones that came before?
From FRONTLINE, I’m James Edwards and this is Un(re)solved.
Episode 4: The Hope.
EDWARDS: Toward the end of 2016, the future of the Till Act was unclear.
The number of open cases on the Till Act list had dwindled to 15. And the bill’s 10 year expiration date was approaching — fast.
But in late 2016, Congress moved to re-authorize the Act.
ARCHIVE (CONGRESS): ...2854 entitled an act to reauthorize the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, do pass with an amendment...
EDWARDS: In one of his final acts as President, Barack Obama signed it.
This turned the page for the Till Act. The new version removed a sunset provision, so the bill would never expire. And it would give the Justice Department an opportunity to address criticisms of its previous work on the cold case initiative.
It expanded the timeframe — now cases as recent as 1979 could be considered.
Along with more from the civil rights era, that hadn’t come to the FBI’s attention earlier — like that of Alberta Jones, from 1965.
Alberta’s is one of the most extensively investigated unsolved civil rights era cold cases. In more than fifty years since her murder, the case has been closed, opened, and closed again a number of times.
Adding it to the Till Act list meant it was opened once again. To her family, the cold case initiative feels like the last best hope for answers.
BRAGG: Some of these families, this is just, this is what has defined a generation.
EDWARDS: My colleague, Ko Bragg, is a criminal justice reporter who lives and has covered stories in the South. She’s one of the reporters I’ve been working with on this series.
BRAGG: What we've been looking at is a list of cases that the federal government has given new energy to. And among this list of cases, there's one case that really stood out to us mainly because she's a woman. It is a case of a Black woman who had mysteriously been killed.
EDWARDS: The vast majority of people on the list are men.
BRAGG: And so immediately that stuck out that there was this woman, and not just any woman, but a woman who was very established who had died in such a cloud of mystery that no one ever really assigned a motive. And yet she's on this list among other people who may have been killed under racially motivated circumstances.
EDWARDS: Ko’s family moved to Mississippi after she finished high school. To Philadelphia, Mississippi… a place forever linked to the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
BRAGG: Being in a place like this, it’s like, really top of mind. You meet people who have lived through, like unspeakable history and you just think about the fact that, like, those people aren’t going to be around much longer. And so part of my moving back to Mississippi when I finished school ultimately was to try to play a role in talking to some of these people who are, whose memories eventually are going to be lost to time.
EDWARDS: Ko took on the Alberta Jones story for our team, and made reporting trips to Louisville — where Alberta was from. She started her inquiry with a simple question.
BRAGG: How do you pronounce the name of this city and why?
LEE REMINGTON: I pronounce it Louisville, um, that is a test here in our city to see who is from here or not.
GARY SIMKINS: I pronounce it Louisville.
BONNIE COFFIELD: Louisville, Kentucky.
EQUISHA RAY: Louisville. Louisville, Kentucky.
JOE YOUNGER: Louisville. Louisville. I don’t know.
EDWARDS: She also asked people another question — whether they consider Louisville “the South.” The answer you get in Kentucky can depend on who you ask.
BRAGG: Do you consider it the South?
BONNIE COFFIELD: Well, yeah, in one way, it’s sorta South, but it’s not like some of the towns, you know.
LEE REMINGTON: I don't consider Louisville a Southern city.
EQUISHA RAY: It's a gateway to the South. I know what I'm talking about, mhm. Gateway to the South.
EDWARDS: To many, especially in a city like Louisville, Southern identity is more complex than people might see from the outside.
BRAGG: Like any big city, it has clear divides, racially clear divides socioeconomically. And I think I was most interested when we were there, trying to pick up on what was Southern about it and what was a little Midwestern about it. What was different and similar from living in a place like Mississippi, which is categorically the South.
EDWARDS: Most cases on the Till Act list are from what’s often labeled “the Deep South” — Mississippi. Alabama. Georgia. States closely associated with slavery and Jim Crow.
Kentucky — with its unique location between the South, Midwest and Appalachia — has a little different history. For starters, during the Civil War it fell mostly under control of the Union fighting against slavery.
And in the 1960s, Kentucky passed its own civil rights bill, which Martin Luther King called, “the strongest and most comprehensive passed by a Southern state.”
That’s not to say racist violence didn’t happen in Kentucky. It certainly did.
So did other racist norms — like segregation.
Back in the day there was no bigger symbol of that in Louisville than Fontaine Ferry Park.
ARCHIVE (FONTAINE FERRY PARK): Throughout the history of the grounds, Fontaine Ferry was the site of area-wide gatherings of all kinds. Political rallies…
EDWARDS: At the edge of the Ohio River, Fontaine was a popular amusement park. With everything you’d expect and then some: dozens of carnival rides, those old school wooden roller coasters, a swimming pool, a roller skating rink.
ARCHIVE (FONTAINE FERRY PARK): ...Raffles and rides put many a tired youngster on Mommy or Daddy’s shoulders for the trip home…
EDWARDS: The type of place where kids could spend hours and hours on a weekend.
But not colored kids. For over 60 years, it was off limits to Black people in Louisville, even as integration began in the neighborhood and two public parks that surrounded it.
On the morning of August 5, 1965, not far from the park — is where we take up the story of what happened to Alberta Jones.
On that day a teenager named Joe Younger and a group of friends and cousins were at a track meet nearby.
JOE YOUNGER: It was just a good day, you know? I mean, anytime the sun came out, we were in, we were in those parks, you know, that's where we lived.
EDWARDS: Younger says the typical thing to do on a hot August day like that one was to go for a swim in the Ohio River.
YOUNGER: We just got in the water, you know. Swimming around there. And I bumped into something, you know, I didn't know what it was. So I start trying to move it and like, I thought it was a log really, you know. ‘Cause there's an awful lot of logs that come down the river and uh, start pulling on it.
And the closer we got — we wasn't out very far, 15 feet maybe. And closer we got to that, to the, uh, the land, the more at that point, this is odd, you know, this is. I mean, we were 14, 15 years old at the time, and, uh, pulled it up and it was, it was a dead person. I should have known now that it was a person, but I didn't, you know, not until we got it up on the, uh, the bank.
EDWARDS: Immediately one of the boys in Younger’s group took off, back to the track meet.
YOUNGER: The next thing we know, a cop comes down and they tell us we have to move out of that, out of the area, you know. That's how that happened. And we just found that, found the dead person, you know? And it was Alberta, or — Alberta Jones. Yeah.
EDWARDS: Younger and his group did not know who Jones was when they discovered her body that morning. But in Black Louisville, many people knew the 34-year-old well.
Over the course of her reporting, Ko did a lot of digging into who Alberta was, and what possibly could have led someone to kill her….
EDWARDS: So after you’ve seen her picture and you’ve read a little bit about Alberta and her case, where do you go from there?
BRAGG: The main thing has been developing a relationship with her younger sister Flora Shanklin.
FLORA SHANKLIN: This is Alberta and my brother. She was three, I think, mom said, and a half.
EDWARDS: Ko spent time with Alberta’s sister, Flora Shanklin, in her home in Louisville.
Flora has lived there all her life. When Ko visited, they sat in her living room going through large envelopes Flora has compiled over the years. A type of family archive I recognize from my own home growing up.
Each envelope filled with many pictures of Alberta, Flora and their family, and the many news clippings documenting Alberta’s accomplishments.
In one picture, she poses with James Meredith, the first Black student admitted to the then racially segregated University of Mississippi.
SHANKLIN: This is Alberta and James Meredith, you remember the guy that integrated Mississippi? Alberta brought him here to Louisville, Kentucky, and that’s at the Memorial Auditorium here, that’s him. She packed that house, yeah, she brought him here. I tell you, she was a mover and a shaker, yep.
EDWARDS: Every story Flora tells about Alberta, you can feel the love and the pride she still has for her big sister. Nothing better captures that bond than another story Flora shares with Ko about the time their mother Sadie caught them doing what quite a few siblings have likely engaged in: a pillow fight. Except this one took place long after childhood.
SHANKLIN: Momma could hear all this commotion upstairs and she started coming up the stairs. And no sooner that she hit that step one of ‘em burst, and feathers went everywhere.
And she said, “I don't believe you two. Here you are a mother with two kids and you a prosecutor, and y’all up here -— I just don't believe y’all doing this.” And me and her were laying on the bed just cracking… “Y’all gon’ pick up every one of them feathers.” And we did.
BRAGG: What's really interesting to me about Ms. Flora is like as soon as you meet her, like, her personality fills a room, right? And so does her laugh. And so that's really great about her, but also just how many stories about Alberta just like kind of pour out of her.
EDWARDS: Many of these stories from Flora, and Alberta’s friends, circle back to just how smart Alberta was and the way she carried herself throughout her life.
BONNIE MARSHALL: I remember as a very young child, she was our superintendent of Sunday school. And she was very, very dynamic and young and vibrant and did all the things that, as a young child watching her, that you would say, ‘Ooo, I want to be like that.’
BRAGG: What crosses your mind when you think about her?
EQUISHA RAY: What she says she was going to be and she did. She was going to be a lawyer. She always talked about she wanted to be a lawyer. And she was smart.
EDWARDS: It showed on paper. Graduating third in her class at Louisville Municipal College. Fourth in her class at Howard Law School in D.C.
Alberta had the option of staying and working in Washington, but she believed her talents were best suited back home.
She passed the Kentucky bar exam, becoming one of the first Black women to earn a law license in the state.
And she settled in the neighborhood where she grew up: the West End. It’s where Alberta opened her own law practice, and owned property.
BRAGG: And you can kind of get a sense of like, the pride — that Alberta would have had as well.
SHANKLIN: When we lived over here it was a beautiful neighborhood. I mean matter of fact they named it Cadillac Square, the block that we lived in because we had a bunch of our neighbors. One of our neighbors had five Cadillacs.
BRAGG: Did y’all drive Cadillacs?
SHANKLIN: No when we moved, couldn’t nobody drive but Alberta. Daddy had a car but it was a Oldsmobile. Because Alberta got her license when she was 15 because she kept stealing the car.
EDWARDS: Growing up, Flora says Alberta used her smarts and her charm to get what she wanted — including convincing her father to allow her to get her driver's license early so she could take the car out and not get in trouble.
Alberta applied that same savvy early on as a lawyer when she represented another West End native just getting started in his own career.
ARCHIVE (HOST): You’re listening to Juniper 5-2-3-8-5. My name is Milton Metz and our guest tonight is Cassius Clay, the fourth ranked world heavyweight. Our question, what’s it like to be a world-famous boxer?
ARCHIVE (CASSIUS CLAY): I have become so popular at this now, until reporters, they don’t say, “Are you gonna win?” They don’t say, “How you feel,” or “You confident?” They wanna know what round I’m gonna knock ‘em out in, so I must be awful great.
EDWARDS: Indeed. Before Muhammad Ali became Muhammad Ali, he went by his given name, Cassius Clay. And Alberta became his first attorney in 1960 after the future champ turned pro.
SHANKLIN: This is the contract. That's the picture that they, when she signed the contract. That's her. That’s Muhammad Ali. That’s his daddy and that’s his mom.
EDWARDS: Alberta negotiated a contract that attracted a lot of attention, not always positive. The deal was way ahead of its time. Unlike many boxing contracts back then, this one tipped in favor of Ali and not the businessmen sponsoring him.
BRAGG: She’s the one who actually wrote the fine print out to say, “Okay, sure this is a great deal, but let’s, you know, put away some of this kid’s money so that he doesn’t blow through it.”
You know, we have this vision of like, NBA players making it big and blowing all their money, like in the first year or two of their contracts, just because, you know, they’re young kids with money. And so she kind of thought ahead of that, and this was decades and decades ago, but she was kind of written out of that history.
EDWARDS: Aside from photos in old issues of JET and EBONY Magazine, there’s not much press about Alberta’s history with Ali. We do know that their split might have been contentious: Alberta told EBONY at the time that the boxer fired her for charging a $2,500 fee. White colleagues, she said, had advised her to charge up to $7,500.
At the same time, Alberta was publicly stirring things up in another way: she was becoming active in Louisville’s civil rights movement, with a focus on getting more Black people registered to vote.
BRAGG: She’s very outspoken. She wrote a lot of newspaper editorials. The one that stands out in my mind is the one in which she points at the editors of the local paper for being hypocritical, for shaking their finger at Mississippi and Mississippi’s brand of racism and not recognizing that Louisville was also segregated.
EDWARDS: Here’s one op-ed, read by an actor, that Alberta wrote in 1960.
ALBERTA JONES (ACTOR): For over three weeks Negroes have been engaged in a struggle to obtain the right as American citizens to attend the downtown theaters. The exclusion of the Negro because of his race is a contradiction of democratic principals and a denial of a basic human right. It is most unfortunate that white Christians in Louisville and believers in America and its democracy have not found it necessary to extend democracy and its rights to all races.
EDWARDS: And in March of 1965, just months before her murder, Alberta took another big step into the public eye: she was appointed the first female prosecutor of any race in Louisville’s history.
But as Flora tells it, something wasn’t right. Alberta was vague about the details… She said enough, though, for them to know she wasn’t happy, and wanted to quit.
SHANKLIN: But she had told Momma two weeks before she got killed, she said “I'm going to quit this position.” She said, “Don't say nothing to anybody.” She said, “Promise me you will not say nothing to nobody about it.” She said, “If I continue in it, will sell my soul to hell.”
And we don't know what happened. She just said, looked at Momma and she said, “Momma, you know, the lowest Black man is better than the richest white man.” And Momma said, “what happened?” And she said nothing and walked off. And Momma said something had happened to make her, because she would always tell you that everybody was the same.
EDWARDS: That cryptic remark...“The lowest Black man is better than the richest white man”— that stuck out to Flora and their mother. It stuck out to me as well. I played it back a number of times, listening to Flora tell it, wondering what it was Alberta witnessed — or went through — to make her say that. Could it be connected to her death, I asked myself.
Or… could it be something many have seen and still see? Another reminder of the long road to progress.
That wasn’t the only thing that Flora said set off alarm bells: Alberta was also becoming more and more concerned about her personal safety.
She bought a small gun for protection, and had an alarm installed in her car, which was not a common thing to have in 1965. Alberta even speculated with family about whether she would be assassinated like President John F. Kennedy.
SHANKLIN: I do know she came downstairs one day and she said to Momma, “Have you seen anybody out on the pole?” And Momma said, “What pole?”
She said, “the telephone pole.”
Mama said, “No, what's going on? You having something done?
She said, “No, I think my telephone was being tapped.”
EDWARDS: Alberta thought someone might have been spying on her.
Then came the night of August 4,1965.
BRAGG: She had a friend, who did hair in the community, had done Alberta’s hair, and she had called the house and was trying to get Alberta to come over to pick up a wig and it's late. It was probably around like 11 or so at night. And so Alberta's like, basically, “The wig can wait.”
EDWARDS: Some reports have suggested the friend might have wanted to meet to discuss a legal matter.
Either way, Alberta was reluctant about leaving the house that late. But, her friend persisted.
BRAGG: The way Flora tells it is that she might've thrown in something to guilt Alberta to say like, ‘You know, you're much more uppity now that you have that job. And so you never have time for us.’
SHANKLIN: She didn’t want nobody to ever think, because she was that well-known, that she was that well-educated, that she was snobby to anybody, and so she said, ‘OK, I’m on my way.’
BRAGG: I get the impression that Alberta was really sensitive about, you know, trying to stay true to her roots, while having this high profile job.
And so she ends up going out. The morning comes, and Alberta’s mom Sadie is like, “This is weird. She didn’t come home, she definitely would’ve come home to change her clothes to go to work the next day. It’s not like her to totally not come home and not call.”
EDWARDS: The next morning, Alberta’s body was found in the Ohio River, and news of her murder tore through the community.
OWENS: I recall going down to the house after they found her, and her mama and sister, you could hear them halfway up the block just hollering and screaming. It was a horrendous thing.
RAY: They was calling, different ones was calling and telling me they couldn’t find her, you know, the church group and things was telling me that. It just knocked me out. Mhm. It just knocked me out.
MARSHALL: Nobody could believe it. Why? Who would kill her? What was the reason behind it? And then not to have any solution to it, it’s still in your head. Why? Why kill her? Just felt horrible.
SHANKLIN: I never, uh, actually saw her body, uh, before the funeral home got through with it. When we went to the grand jury they had pictures of it and he apologized because he had it on the table and mama grabbed it and when she saw the condition of her she passed out. So I wouldn’t even look because I knew it had to be bad.
EDWARDS: Alberta’s autopsy report would go on to list her official cause of death as drowning. It revealed that she had suffered two face lacerations, one to the forehead and another over her right eyebrow. Police theorized that someone struck her with an unknown blunt object before her body went into the Ohio River. Her autopsy also stated that: “the victim was living on entering the water.”
Based on the life Alberta lived, many reasons jump out as to why someone might have targeted her. Her early work as a lawyer and property owner. Her historic appointment as prosecutor, working in the Domestic Relations Court on contentious cases. Her outspoken advocacy for civil rights and registering Black voters.
So far, there hasn’t been evidence to prove Alberta’s murder had to do with her race.
And the Till Act does allow for the examination of cases where that motive is still unclear. Some cases, in the end, are determined to be accidents, or homicides that were not racist killings.
But in the context of the times, and based on the life Alberta lived, it’s hard to not wonder if her’s was.
BRAGG: I think this is something that was hard for a lot of people to swallow because it's at a time, if you think about it in the larger context of the ‘60s, this was something that, Black people disappearing or turning up lynched or murdered in all types of ways was something that Black people growing up in the ‘60s would have, would have known was possible.
EDWARDS: I can’t help but think about all that transpired in the year leading up to Alberta’s death.
In the summer of 1964, she took part in a voting rally at a public park not far from where the teenagers would later find her body. When she spoke to the crowd, one of the things Alberta is quoted as saying is, “You young people who greet each other with ‘Hiya baby,’ start changing it to ‘Hiya baby, are you registered?’”
Six months after that rally, Jimmie Lee Jackson, fighting for the right to vote, was shot by a state trooper in Alabama.
And then, just a day after Alberta is killed, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.
Neither Alberta nor Jimmie Lee were alive to witness that historic day.
ARCHIVE (LYNDON B. JOHNSON): Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex. And most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote.
EDWARDS: One of the things that draws me to — and bothers me — about this case, is how to this day there are no clear leads... despite what appears to have been a massive investigation at the time. And a string of reinvestigations over the decades.
Immediately following Alberta’s death, Louisville police interviewed nearly 400 people and collected mountains of evidence. The FBI even got involved, to help analyze forensic evidence, like fingerprints.
Given all of that, it’s hard to get my head around the fact that there was never a single arrest in Alberta’s case.
EDWARDS: How did the police still fall short of arresting anybody?
BRAGG: Yeah. And so this is where… I mean, my immediate question when I was reading through newspaper clippings and just seeing how consistently the paper covered it, how much information they were getting directly from the police.
EDWARDS: Ko gathered stories covering Alberta’s murder and the investigation in the Louisville Courier-Journal, the city’s main white paper, which is readily available online.
But to view clips from the city’s Black paper, The Louisville Defender, Ko had to visit a library, where she found herself sitting at an old microfilm machine.
BRAGG: Okay, so this is August 26th, 1965. Jones’ estate valued at sixty-six thousand dollars. More lie detector tests given. FBI tests are termed — I’m guessing — inconclusive. The side of this front page is cut off, so I can’t really see. Miss Sadie Jones…
EDWARDS: One thing both papers highlighted was that, within a year of Alberta’s murder, six other Black women were violently killed in the same neighorhood she’d called home. That’s another theory for what happened to Alberta that could be found in the papers.
Ko’s reporting on the case eventually landed her the police file.
She got it from a friend of Alberta’s sister, Bill Patteson.
BILL PATTESON: There are some great photos of Alberta in there.
EDWARDS: We couldn’t get the file from the FBI or local police because they still consider it an open case.
But Bill requested it from Louisville police about ten years ago, and got it… More than 1200 pages.
BRAGG: Can you kind of talk us through what it was like when you first got it? What did you look for and what stood out?
PATTESON: It looked like from the newspaper articles that I had gathered outside of the file that the Louisville police department had done a pretty thorough investigation. Uh, and that's largely confirmed by this file. They went through a lot of investigative work.
EDWARDS: Despite that, police hadn’t been able to make a case.
PATTESON: They’d simply not come up with anything provable. And there's a saying among attorneys, um, doesn't matter what the truth is, what can you prove? And, uh, that's the conclusion I came to, that they simply could not, with the evidence that they had, prove anything.
BRAGG: How did that make you feel?
PATTESON: I understood it because, uh, I've worked in a prosecutor's office, but I wasn't satisfied. Uh, there is something still out there. There is something larger still out there. And I don't know that we'll ever know what that is, but it makes me very sad that, uh, that Alberta's, uh, murder has gone unsolved for this long.
EDWARDS: With the case file in hand, we could see what Louisville police were doing, in detail, during their 1965 investigation.
It’s full of memos, summaries of interviews, and various tips police received about why Alberta may have been targeted.
The tips included things like she was attacked by the children of a disgruntled client. That she was a “dope addict” and died from an overdose. That she had started pursuing legal action against someone who had hit her car and was refusing to pay the bill, and he wasn’t happy about it. That Alberta was involved in an illegal real estate hustle. But no strong leads in any one particular direction.
The idea that Alberta may have been killed because of her activism, or her race, very rarely came up, if at all.
Some detectives did fixate on the question — whether Alberta was involved in, in their words, “lesbian activity.”
BRAGG: The police use like very offensive language to describe what they assumed to be like lesbian relationships that she was in. But I also imagine a world in which if you are helping women with divorces, for example, that — yeah, you may be meeting late at night and that there were some people who thought that was suspicious.
EDWARDS: Why was there such a focus there?
BRAGG: I couldn't separate the fact that like, this is a Black woman from the fact there's probably a little bit of like, sexism rooted in it. I think maybe on some level it could have they thought that there it could have been that, you know, she was having an affair with someone, like someone's wife, and then that person retaliated against her. And like, that was the motive. It was like, a crime of passion, so to speak.
But like, there was way more conversation, like way more interest in the fact that she could have been a lesbian than in the fact that she was an activist or that you know, I think they talk a little bit about the fact that she could have pissed off a client. And they pursue some of those that like rumors that they hear about, like, people being mad in court or whatever, but like, nothing ever comes of that.
EDWARDS: One person the police spoke to multiple times was the friend Alberta went to see the night she died. She insisted that after their visit, Alberta drove away, and that was the last time they saw each other.
Police also interviewed this friend’s son, who was 13 at the time. In their write up of the conversation, police say he told them the same story that his mom did: that after Alberta left, she came upstairs and laid down with him and his sister to watch the end of that night’s Late Show movie, “The Body Snatchers.”
I checked the TV listings from that day’s Courier Journal paper and...there it was, “The Body Snatchers,” with horror movie mainstays Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi...starting at 11:25 pm.
No interviews or leads resulted in charges against anyone. None of the evidence sent to the FBI to be analyzed returned positive matches, and police never made public any prevailing theory about who killed Alberta, or why.
And when a grand jury convened three months after her killing, it concluded that “persons unknown” were responsible.
Investigators continued to chase leads, but there was no significant movement in the case.
It stayed dormant for nearly 25 years until 1989, when the Alberta’s murder was looked at again by Louisville police in connection with another unsolved cold case.
Ko tracked down Gary Simkins — the former detective who worked on Alberta’s case at that time.
GARY SIMKINS: This thing went in a lot of different directions with a lot of twists on it and I hate to admit it, but it got to be more than I thought I could deal with and make any progress.
EDWARDS: When I hear Ko’s interview with Simkins, it is clear he really cared about the case.
He had the case file, but says that Louisville police had at some point lost or misplaced almost all of the physical evidence they had gathered — the photos, the fingerprints, the dirt and blood samples, and more. All gone.
Simkins was working the case alone, conducting interviews, trying to get help from the FBI, trying to track down leads.
GARY SIMKINS: It was way more than a one person detective was going to do part time and get done. You need a group of serious investigators to sit down and read that whole file, go through it, and come up with some directions to go split up the work and go in those directions.
EDWARDS: Ko asked him, based on his work...
BRAGG: I’m just curious about whether you felt it was racially motivated at all from your investigation?
SIMKINS: Young lady, I don't know. I mean, I'd be lying if I said, “No, that couldn't be,” alright. I'd also be lying if I said, “Yeah, that’s what I think happened.” ‘Cause I don't, uh, but, but it very well could have been. I mean, from what I talked to, from what I talked to there was a lot of people did not like the fact that she got to be a county attorney. Was that racially motivated? I think so. Nobody actually told me, but that was my impression. And there was a lot of, uh, I don't know. Just a lot of weird stuff in this case.
EDWARDS: Thirty years later, Simkins says he still thinks about the case.
And Flora Shanklin, Alberta’s sister, still regards him fondly. He even hesitated to speak with us about his work on the case, but after consulting with Flora, he finally agreed.
MICHELLE MIZNER: Do you remember talking to Alberta's sister for the first time?
SIMKINS: Oh my gosh, yes. She wasn't real happy to see me. Okay. It was kind of more like — “Every 10 years they send somebody out here to talk to me about this stuff, but y'all ain't gonna do nothing.” And that was kinda like that. You know, that I wasn't the first person that came out and told her I was gonna try to do something.
SHANKLIN: He said he thought he was going to solve it. He really did.
EDWARDS: Not long after Alberta’s case went quiet again in the early ‘90s, her mother, Sadie Jones, passed away.
SHANKLIN: Momma used to always say that she wanted — she hoped they solved it before she died. And bless her sweet heart. I think before she left here that she realized that she wasn’t going to see it. And even after she passed I hoped that I would live to see it but actually I mean you know when you come from 57 and now you’re 83, you know it’s not gon’ happen...it’s not going to happen.
EDWARDS: And then, a break.
In 2008, which coincidentally was the same year the Till Act was passed, a new lead in the Alberta Jones case emerged.
NEWS ARCHIVE: ...The only piece of evidence remaining is a fingerprint taken from inside the car Jones was driving that night. The print was matched by the FBI in 2008.
EDWARDS: During the original investigation back in 1965, Louisville Police had relied on the FBI to analyze pieces of evidence that it wasn’t equipped to process — evidence like fingerprints found inside the car Alberta was driving.
Decades later, it turns out, the FBI still had copies of those prints.
After receiving a phone call from Flora in early 2008, a detective from the police department took a look at the case. He asked the FBI to run the prints again.
And for the first time, they got a name.
EDWARDS: Who turns out to be the match.
BRAGG: So this kid who was 17 years old at the time.
EDWARDS: This person, who by this time was in his 60s, was Black, from Louisville, but had moved to California.
The FBI report says his fingerprint was one of three found inside the car Alberta had been driving. The other two prints didn’t return a match.
This wasn’t the car Alberta owned, but a loaner from a dealership. Her car was in the repair shop.
The FBI report could only narrow down the location of where this fingerprint was found to either the car’s left window or its interior right door.
BRAGG: And once they get this positive match back a detective flies out to Orange County, California to sit down with, you know this guy.
EDWARDS: The interview was recorded, and there’s a transcript in the case file.
BRAGG: He swore that he didn't know Alberta and that like, it doesn't really make sense for his fingerprint to turn up in her car. Um, you know, it was a rental car. And so he was like, “I don't, you know, I was much younger than she was,” like, you know, Alberta was in her thirties when she was killed and he would've been 17 at the time. And so he was like, “There's no reason why I would've been around her. Maybe I brushed up against the car at one point.” Because he used to hang around like a park that was near her house or something like that.
EDWARDS: Throughout the conversation, he denies any involvement in Alberta’s killing. And by the end of the interview, he’s asked by a detective to take a polygraph test and he agrees.
Local officials said the results indicated “some deception” when they questioned him about Alberta’s killing. That could have meant he was lying... or it could mean nothing. It’s important to note that legal experts generally dismiss polygraph tests as junk science. And they aren’t admissible in court.
After the interview, the detective returned to Louisville and continued the investigation.
Nearly two years later, in 2010, Alberta’s sister Flora was notified of a letter written by the state prosecutor.
It said the office was “closing all interest in prosecuting this case at this time or at any time in the foreseeable future.”
The letter laid out its reasons...that most witnesses were deceased or their locations were unknown. That all the evidence was missing. That the polygraph of the man with the fingerprint match couldn’t be used in court. And that it was unclear whether the matching fingerprint came from inside or outside the vehicle — and the technician who lifted them was no longer alive to verify.
Ultimately, police never named the man as a suspect. And once again, investigators closed the case.
That’s where the case file on Alberta Jones’ murder ends.
It was 2010, and meanwhile in D.C., the FBI was moving through the investigations of cases on the Till Act list. Alberta’s was not one of them. Maybe it never would have been, were it not for someone outside of law enforcement, who took an interest.
LEE REMINGTON: She has a way of sticking with you. And for good and for bad and, and always encouraging. But in a way that might sound strange to some people, but she is that type of memory that stays with you.
EDWARDS: Lee Remington is a professor at Bellarmine University. She lives in Louisville. Ko visited her home there.
Lee became interested in Alberta’s story about twenty years ago, when she was a young law student at the University of Louisville. Like Ko, like me, a photograph of Alberta grabbed her attention.
REMINGTON: They have, it used to be in the basement, um, a list or a group of photographs, um, and frames across the wall. And it, it's Kentucky civil rights leaders. And I stopped one day and I don't even know why I stopped and I happened to start just reading them. And I noticed that there was a Black woman, um, which was rare in and of itself, um, on the wall.
And she, I'll never forget the photograph. It's the one where she — and I found out later, cause it's black and white. I didn't know it's pink. She had on a pink wool plaid skirt pillbox suit. And it's gorgeous. She was such a fashionista.
And I started reading the inscriptions and it talked about a few of her accomplishments in very brief detail. It's a little blurb and down at the bottom, um, it mentioned that she had been murdered and it was unsolved. And for a female in law school being from this very area, and not have ever heard of, I had never heard of her. And I remember looking around at the, I just remember this moment is 2001 and I remember looking around thinking, am I in the Twilight zone? This is so bizarre. I've never heard of her.
EDWARDS: Lee began her research into Alberta’s life thinking she’d found an untold story that could one day become a book. She says she started asking around — who was this woman?
REMINGTON: And no one there seemed to be able to tell me very much about her at all — “Who?” And I, that blew my mind even more. And so I became, I would say obsessed in a way.
BRAGG: And so, from there, Lee gets pretty in the weeds and starts researching Alberta and reading newspaper stories and ultimately, ends up reaching out to Flora because, like I think she hears her sister's still in Louisville, alive, and the type of person that you need to meet. And so they develop a relationship where, you know, Lee is still doing research. I think Lee talks about, you know, maybe doing a book and from there, they hit it off.
EDWARDS: And years later, after prosecutors had closed the case, Lee’s focus expanded.
Since then she has essentially led her own investigation — into Alberta’s death and into the police work.
Lee found discrepancies in the prosecutor’s letter — the one that outlined why the office was closing the case.
For instance, it said the technician who lifted the fingerprints was deceased, and he could not help verify where they were from. But she says she found him alive, and spoke with him.
The letter also said virtually all witnesses from the original investigation were deceased, making using their testimony in court impossible. But Lee pointed out that some key witnesses were still alive — and she urged authorities to speak to them.
National newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post took notice, and profiled the case. And again, it garnered attention from media in Louisville.
NEWS ARCHIVE: ...We have been highlighting the life and achievements of the civil rights icon from Louisville, Alberta Jones. Her 1965 murder is still unsolved today… Now, a Bellarmine professor who researched Jones’ life and death is calling for the case to be reopened…
EDWARDS: In 2018, Alberta’s case was added to the federal government’s cold case list, thanks in no small part to the investigative work and lobbying Lee has done.
But Lee is quick to point out that the whole time, she has been working side by side with Flora.
REMINGTON: She's the bravest person I know. And I always tell people, if you even want to know a fraction of how amazing perhaps Alberta was, then you need to meet her baby sister because she's a force of nature in and of herself. I mean, Flora is, there is an attempt, I think early on in this story, um, to paint the white professor as the Sandra Bullock, the white savior type role, which I despise, hate. I want to be in the background I always have, and she is the real hero.
EDWARDS: As I listen to Lee say this — despising being labeled as a “white savior” — I think about something that’s crossed my mind off and on while reporting this story: Lee isn’t the only one in this role. Most of the journalists and lawyers who’ve uncovered leads in the highest profile civil rights cold cases have been white.
That doesn’t detract from the progress Lee has made with Alberta’s case.
But the trope of the white savior runs deep - through books, movies, television, and much more. My earliest awakening to it might have been after reading To Kill A Mockingbird in high school — the archetypal story of a white lawyer saving a wrongly accused Black man.
To hear Lee Remington sound so self aware about it surprised me, because, honestly, for a long time I hadn’t met many white people who were.
Ko told me she’d noticed that, too.
BRAGG: The Washington Post did a story about Alberta's case and like, you know, Lee's in the photos with Flora...so she's definitely, whether she likes it or not, part of the story.
But you have to kind of discuss, why, why so many of these cases even need or have historically had like a white advocate and like that has been why they're on our radar. Like, you know, the Mississippi Burning case is probably one of the like, clearest examples of that. Because out of the three civil rights workers, two were white, white young guys from the north, and, you know, their families were very honest about the fact that if it had just been James Chaney, the young Black kid from Meridian, Mississippi who had been killed by the Klan in that way, there's no way it would have been a national news story in the same way.
Even when there weren't white victims, like, if there was a white journalist on the case, it changes things.
And I think that's very hard to swallow. And like, I think all would agree that if justice is the end game, right, it doesn't really matter, like, how you get to that end, like what means you're using. But like, I think it does, in some way matter because you know, the way Lee puts it is like, you know, Flora’s voice in this, right, should have been enough. Like these families who are going through this, that should be enough. These killings, like these civil rights murders, like that should be enough.
And so you have to ask like, what does it mean for their pleas to, like sometimes not be enough?
SHANKLIN: And that’s my brother's grave. He died in ‘71. And he was…
EDWARDS: Ko visited the cemetery where family members are buried, including Alberta.
BRAGG: There's not some grand entrance. You kind of drive through this bumpy road. It's paved, but definitely cracked. And the grass is not that well kept...Some of the grave sites are turned over and it’s very clear that it's suffering in some way.
EDWARDS: Flora took Ko to Alberta’s gravesite.
BRAGG: Do you mind reading what’s on Ms. Alberta’s…
SHANKLIN: ‘More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.’ That was one of her most famous sayings.
BRAGG: I think what's really interesting is that, you know, Flora talks about this, where, you know, later, their mom passes. And so she was like, “I could accept that. Because mom died of old age.”
SHANKLIN: She was 88. She had lived a good life. She did not want to live anymore. I miss her. She made up her mind. She was leaving and she left without letting me know she was going. But I can accept that because that’s a natural death. I could accept that.
Alberta went out of the house a healthy woman and got abducted and beat to death and then thrown away like she was a bag of trash. And nobody has ever been tried for it.
EDWARDS: Flora is the last living relative of Alberta’s immediate family. Hope is running neck and neck with doubt. It’s been more than five decades, and the cycle can still feel the same. A new lead. A new investigation.
So far, all of it has ultimately led to the same result: nothing.
Now, her sister’s name is an open case on the Till Act list, likely the last hope for any real progress or answers.
SHANKLIN: I am sure that they will do what they can, the best they can do under the circumstances, but whether they will ever get to the bottom of it, I don't know. But the only good part about this, they could, they will not close it without telling me what happened. They will come and talk to me if I'm still around.
EDWARDS: Today, there are around two dozen victims with open cases like Alberta’s on the government’s list.
With the reauthorization of the Till Act, the government has the mandate, the resources, and the hopes of the families in their hands. But for any justice to actually be found, time is very quickly running out.
So how are they now handling cases like Alberta’s?
What is the likelihood they will be able to bring some measure of justice...or find the truth?
I was about to get my chance to ask, and possibly get some answers.
Coming up on Un(re)solved…a conversation with the FBI.