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Episode 5: The Future

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JAMES EDWARDS: Hi, Ms. Shanklin. How are you?

 

FLORA SHANKLIN: Hi, James. How are you doing?

 

EDWARDS: I’m doing good. It’s a pleasure to meet you.

 

EDWARDS: On a Friday night in early April of 2021, I got to talk to Flora Shanklin for the first time.

 

EDWARDS: I’ve been listening to the tapes that Ko and Michelle recorded with you while they were out there. So I kind of feel like I already know you. I’ve been listening to you for almost a year now.

 

EDWARDS: It’s weird at first talking to someone like this over the phone, after having spent so much time listening to interviews of Flora speak so intimately about her life...and what may be the most traumatic moment of it...the 1965 murder of her older sister, Alberta Jones — a lawyer, civil rights activist, and Louisville’s first female prosecutor.

 

Alberta’s killing remains unsolved. It’s one of just a handful of open cases on the Till Act list. 

 

I’d been told Flora has a personality that can light up a room — and it was true. That came through on our phone call.

 

We chatted for an hour and a half, mainly about Alberta, sometimes about their family… like the time her mother tried to join Alberta and her boyfriend, Randy, on a date...

 

SHANKLIN: And I’ll never forget Alberta and Randy was going to the movies. She said, “Can I go?” And Alberta said, “What you got a 34-year-old woman going on a date with her mother?”

 

EDWARDS: Reminds me of my mother.

 

SHANKLIN: Yeah… 

 

EDWARDS: I talked with Flora after spending a year reviewing Alberta’s story on paper. Beyond the details of the case, there was one other thing in particular I wanted to find out:had the FBI or Justice Department been in touch with Flora?

 

SHANKLIN: Lee and I had a, what was that? A zoom meeting with two people from the Justice Department and, and one FBI agent here in Louisville, Kentucky, What was that? About three or four weeks ago.

 

EDWARDS: Oh… 

 

EDWARDS: Apparently just a couple of weeks before Flora and I spoke, the FBI had a meeting with her and Lee Remington, the professor who’d spent years researching Alberta’s case.

 

The Till Act requires the government to communicate directly with next of kin who have loved ones on the list. By this time, Alberta’s case had been on there for three years.

 

EDWARDS: So what did they talk about?

 

FLORA SHANKLIN: Basically they want to know what happened. Um, uh, the night that she was killed, um, uh, that was basically, you know, what they was trying to figure out, who do we think that may have been responsible for her death and why, you know.

 

EDWARDS: Mhm. Did you get the sense that they had been through the case file or kind of knew more of those details?

 

FLORA SHANKLIN: I think they have.

 

TONY SHANKLIN: Yeah we had the person that had looked at the file. 

 

EDWARDS: That’s Flora’s son, Tony. He’d also joined them for the meeting.

 

EDWARDS: Ok. 

 

TONY SHANKLIN: I don't know what they will be willing to let us know about it, you know, since it is an active investigation, you know, they might want to make it close to the vest.

 

EDWARDS: Mhm.

 

FLORA SHANKLIN: They told us that they will take a everything that we had discussed with them, you know, into consideration, they'd be getting back to us, but, you know, they haven't reached out to Lee and they have reached out to me, but it takes time sometimes to go through things like this.

 

EDWARDS: Flora said the FBI didn’t have much to share by way of updates on Alberta’s case. To my surprise, she’s patient — almost accepting. But Flora’s been down this road before...investigations in 1965...in 1989...and 2008...with the same result: no clear motive, no suspect, no justice.

 

SHANKLIN: The night that she went out and got killed, she was reading about John F. Kennedy. And she said, “I hope I don't get assassinated like him.” And I told her, I said, “you don't have to worry about it. You not the president of the United States.” So that's something that I wish that...I can take back, but I can’t.

 

Because she did get killed. And basically, she got assassinated and I can't take it back.

 

EDWARDS: I lost my train of thought here listening to Flora, eyes closed, absorbing all she still feels this many years later. We were both quiet for what felt longer than the 5 or 10 seconds it actually was.

 

Flora said she and Lee Remington spoke to the FBI and Justice Department for about an hour and a half. She told me it was hard for her to gauge how aggressive the federal government will be. But, she went on to say that she would put her money with the FBI over local police.

 

When she said that, I immediately thought about other families who’d carried that same faith at some point… but whose loved ones' cases were closed with no resolution. 

 

Would anything be different this time, in Alberta’s case — or any open case on the list? 

 

The government’s cold case initiative had gotten some upgrades over the years. Whether that meant the FBI and the Justice Department would be able to do more – have more success – that remained an open question.

 

Because of those other families. Because it had been a decade with no arrests or federal prosecutions since the Till Act became law. And, frankly, because of history and the lack of justice or resolution we continue to see today. 

 

It’s why I was anxious to hear for myself what the government had to say. About how they saw the past and the future of their efforts. About what they’re doing now that might give hope to someone like Flora Shanklin.

 

The FBI had agreed to speak with me, and I thought, maybe, I was about to finally get some answers.

 

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

 

Episode 5: The Future.

 

EDWARDS: Several weeks after my call with Flora Shanklin, I had my own virtual meeting with the FBI. My first chance to talk to someone currently in charge of this work at the bureau. 

 

MICHELLE MIZNER: Ok, so, this is just to test the levels… 

 

EDWARDS: That’s my colleague, producer Michelle Mizner. 

 

MIZNER: Can you go ahead and look around the room and tell me about where you are today, the city, the weather?

 

RON REED: Sure...so my name is Ron Reed. I’m the FBI Civil Rights Unit Chief. I am in the Hoover building at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. And I'm much more comfortable being the one asking the questions, but uh, this is a switch, but that's okay.

 

EDWARDS: Ron Reed’s been with the FBI for 17 years. He’d spent part of that time working on civil rights cases in Louisiana. 

 

REED: Previous to the FBI, I was a state trooper. And one of the things that I had to get, uh, accustomed to, um, when I became a FBI agent is the meticulous pace in which, uh, our investigations are conducted. 

 

EDWARDS: Reed is also among a small percentage of Black agents at the bureau. Despite attempts to address the diversity of its workforce, the FBI still struggles to attract potential agents of color. Black agents make up only around 4 percent of all FBI special agents...while more than 80 percent are white. 

 

REED: As an African-American male working this violation, um, and as an FBI agent, I can only say to you that it is very hard, but very rewarding work. And that every day I get up and I can't wait to get to work and I stay here probably too long. Um, and then I get up and do it all over again and look forward to it every day.

 

EDWARDS: In his role as Civil Rights Unit Chief, one thing Reed does is oversee work on the cold case initiative. When we spoke, he said he’d been leading the civil rights unit for just about 8 months.

 

REED: So my initial priorities when I took over in August was first, when you come into any new job is to completely get up to speed and see where we, um, where we were at the time. To be perfectly honest, where we were at the time and where we are right now, that there's not, haven't been a whole lot of movement.

 

EDWARDS: Reed says the lack of movement stems from these cases being especially difficult. Still, the agency is inviting more of them. 

 

REED: I was going to do this at the end, but, uh, a pitch that I will give to your audience is if anyone has knowledge of a civil rights crime that has not been solved that resulted in a death that took place before 1980, what we would ask you to do is to contact your local field office or, um, well, best to contact your local field office and provide them with that information. And that information will come up to us from there and we will definitely exploit it with every effort that we could give. 

 

EDWARDS: I had a handful of cases I wanted to talk to Reed about, including of course, Alberta Jones’s.

 

REED: Alberta Jones. So. That one. So we have, well on that one, I can just say that, um, you know, there are certain amount of cases that are under, still under review… Obviously can't talk about anything that we're actively working.

 

EDWARDS: Meaning he could not talk about this case, because it is still open. The FBI usually will not talk about open cases. 

 

Fair enough. But I tried to at least get a little insight into how they might be approaching it.

 

EDWARDS: As you're reviewing cases are there just specific criteria that you're following to determine whether or not to put a case on the list?

 

REED: The very first thing we want to do is see if the case is a viable case, meaning that there's no double jeopardy, that's going to apply that the statute of limitation has not run on it. And then, we start looking to see if any witnesses are still alive that we can go and interview. Of course you have to do a deep dive into the historical records, the records that are the medical records that may exist, uh, the autopsies, uh, the investigations that took place, those records sometimes are still there. A lot of the information that we end up getting is not firsthand information because the witnesses have passed just like a lot of the subjects have passed.

 

EDWARDS: Reed describes a process for reviewing the cases that sounds a lot like what I’d heard from former agents I’ve spoken with. So it’s hard to know if anything will be different about Alberta’s case — a case viable enough to make it onto the list, but one that, from the outside, there doesn't appear to be any movement on. 

 

Reed goes on to tell me that while successes in these cases are few and far between, the agency isn’t giving up. 

 

REED: Two times out of 132 times so far all of the pieces have fit together for us to be able to have a federal prosecution but you know, we don't let that slow us down or deter us at all. So we try very hard to make it work every time, but it just doesn't work every time. I would just say that in my experience, and I've been an FBI agent for almost 18 years now, in my experience, if we can make a case, I promise you we're going to make that case.

 

EDWARDS: I also asked Reed about the case of Roman Ducksworth, Jr., an Army corporal shot and killed by a police officer in Mississippi in 1962.

 

The FBI closed Roman’s case in 2010, citing the death of the officer who killed him.  

 

Yet we found in our reporting that certain investigative steps were missed at the time of his death, and during a subsequent review by the FBI under the Cold Case Initiative.

 

Steps like reviewing witness statements gathered by the Military police, or interviewing living family members who were at the scene.   

 

Reed wasn’t leading the civil rights unit at the time and said he couldn’t really talk about what was done back then — but he did tell me those issues wouldn’t have had any bearing on the eventual outcome anyway.

 

REED: This case was thoroughly investigated, but at the end of the day, we didn't have anyone that, even if we were able to prove the case, that we would be able to prosecute. 

 

EDWARDS: Still... I wanted to ask the central question I had after looking into that case:  

 

EDWARDS:  So in a case like this where, you know, a suspect is dead, but there's still questions about whether the shooting was justifiable, is there less of an incentive to get at the truth?

 

REED: So there, there are actually two reasons why this case was closed. And the first one is that the primary suspect, or the suspect, or subject, I should say, uh, Officer Kelly has been deceased since, uh, 2004, and also this case, um, the statute of limitation had actually run on his case because prior to 1994, federal criminal civil rights violations were not capital offenses.

 

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, um, that we did have to close.

 

EDWARDS: In many of these cases there will never be justice in a courtroom. But does it have to end there? What about at least changing the narrative, laying out an official account of what really happened?

 

After a thorough investigation, there is no requirement within the FBI to do anything more than try to bring a prosecution. If that’s not possible, they close the case. 

 

This approach does fall in line with the FBI’s stated mission: protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States. 

But I wondered where the notion of truth, of pursuing it regardless, fit into the FBI’s outlook. 

And that word — truth — wasn’t one that Reed used when talking about these cases.  

 

EDWARDS: Even when a prosecution or arrest isn’t possible, is there still an incentive to still try and investigate to reverse the initial narrative that was given? 

 

REED: So that's a tough one. And the reason I say it's a tough one is because, uh, we absolutely feel for the families. We want to provide as much closure as possible. But at the same time if we don't have a subject, if we don't, if we're past the statute of limitation, we will meet with the family when possible. But we've, we've learned that sometimes, uh, some families don't want that. So sometimes maybe it might just be a letter. 

 

And unfortunately when we get to a point where we don't have anywhere further to go with the investigation — all logical leads have been concluded and then the prosecutors, uh, advise that there's no prosecution possible, we do unfortunately have to move on to the next matter. 

 

EDWARDS: So, if arrest and prosecution is the primary goal — what kind of resources are going towards open cases on the list?

 

REED: The same effort that we've always made and that we always make on all our cases, we give, we apply all the resources available to investigate our cases, whether they're cold cases or any other type of cases.

 

EDWARDS: So the directive hasn't changed since most of the cases on the list are now closed?

 

REED: No, no. I know this interview is not about current events and we will not really go there, but I'll just say that, um, we have actually, we’re surging more resources towards the civil rights violation right now probably than we've ever had in the past because we're responding to everything that's going on in current events.

 

EDWARDS: Over the last decade, those current events have included Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, the Charleston 9, Heather Heyer, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd...and even one case that Reed worked on when he was in the FBI’s New Orleans field office: the 2016 police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge.

 

ARCHIVE: Alton Sterling was shot by police officers outside a convenience store...The video appears to show a Baton Rouge policeman shooting the 37-year-old man as officers held him down on the ground...Now a months-long investigation by the department of justice has concluded there isn't enough evidence to prosecute the officers involved...

 

EDWARDS: I hadn’t expected Reed to be open to talking about current events. But when he brought it up, I asked him:

 

EDWARDS: You know, we've been just at an inflection point in America when it comes to race and how it's impacted this country. And just in the context of this moment, how do you view the Till Act in this effort kind of contributing to this moment in our history? 

 

REED: Hmm, that's an interesting question. I don't view it in the sense of the current events. I view it as the Emmett Till Cold Case Act and we're looking at you know, trying to find and find prosecutable, investigatable, um, cases and trying to bring them to a close. Uh, and when I say bring them to a close, the preferred close is to be able to investigate and prosecute. 

EDWARDS: That’s one point where we differ. Reed says he sees “current events” as one thing — and the Till Act cases he investigates in the civil rights unit, as another.

 

I even point out to Reed the FBI’s own history of mistrust between the agency and Black Americans.

 

REED: Well, hopefully I can, we can build that trust by people like myself coming out and speaking with, uh, reporters like you and ensuring the public, that we're doing everything that we can to investigate crimes period… Every civil rights, or hate crime, every color law, all of these allegations that come across from past and present we assess them and I can say trust me that whenever and wherever we can make a federal case, we make it.

 

EDWARDS: And just on a personal level, um, just as an African-American agent, you know, what has it been like for you just to be in this position, doing this work? 

 

REED: I guess in a way, there may be some significance, uh, that I'm an African-American male. Uh, but in my mind, it really isn't because we have all the types of agents from all different backgrounds that work this violation and work it, uh, just as hard as I do and are just as passionate about it as I am.

 

EDWARDS: As the allotted time for our interview came to an end, Reed made a final pitch.

 

REED: I know you have a very large audience, so I'm hoping that, uh, that there will be more cases added just from this interview. And especially with the reauthorization, if they're closer to 1980, which would probably make, uh, evidence records and, uh, subjects more available to us is, as I said, is just, we're talking 50, 60 years. So if you're going to grade us, I hope you would grade us on a curve. 

 

EDWARDS: I don’t know what grade I’d give the FBI and Justice Department. 

 

Having spent so much time reporting on the initiative, it is fair to say that most everyone I spoke to has come away with a sense of disappointment.

 

Since our first episode aired, the DOJ published a new report to Congress on the Till Act — the first one since 2019. 

 

And in it, they address some of the questions we’ve raised in the course of our reporting.

 

They address the lack of clear access to funding for the Till Act. And say that in 2020 — more than a decade after the DOJ was supposed to start awarding grants to state and local agencies — they made their first award: $300,000 to Maryland’s Attorney General to fund the investigation of more than 40 unsolved lynchings committed in Maryland.

 

There’s also a new line in this report about grant money that stood out to me. It says:

 

“The grant funds also can support activities to assist victims' families and stakeholders affected by these cases.” 

 

This suggestion that the money could help victims' families wasn't in previous reports.

 

And the FBI and DOJ have even started holding webinars for prospective grant applicants. Like this one.

 

ARCHIVE: ...There have been, there are, barriers to successful prosecution and I want to talk to you about some of those because some are barriers that you face as state and local law enforcement officers… 

 

EDWARDS: While the Justice Department wouldn’t talk to us, they did email to say that they’d be adding three attorneys and a dedicated investigator to work on cold case matters.

 

Still...it’s been more than a decade since the Till Act became law. I haven’t gotten a clear answer on why more of this didn’t happen sooner…

 

Why the Justice Department didn’t institute these steps right away. 

 

Why Congress didn’t make sure funding was reaching the people it was intended to help, and why they didn’t more closely oversee the work being done.

 

Way back at the beginning of this series, former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he had told then President George W. Bush not to expect too much from the cold case initiative — that prosecutions would be hard to come by. 

 

The late Congressman John Lewis’ rhetoric inspired a lot of hope as he championed the Till Act. But I also wonder if he harbored some of those same doubts and low expectations. 

 

I never got the chance to ask him. But I did find someone who might help me understand.

 

BRENDA JONES: I think what Congressman Lewis sought to do was to help find answers for families that had gaping holes in their legacy. 

 

EDWARDS: That’s Brenda Jones — who for 16 years, worked as the late Congressman Lewis’ communications director. 

 

JONES: I think that was his desire. Legislation is not a perfect tool where you can do everything you want, every legislation has to operate within the confines of the law itself.

 

EDWARDS: Our team talked with her in D.C. about the Till Act and how it came together. In the middle of this conversation, Jones said outright what Lewis actually wanted.

 

JONES: I know Congressman Lewis actually would have wanted, were he able to have on his own implemented what he thought was necessary — he really wanted a truth and reconciliation kind of commission in the United States.

 

EDWARDS: A truth and reconciliation commission.

 

That would’ve been an ambitious undertaking. One that Lewis didn’t think America would have accepted.

 

Dozens of countries have appointed these commissions to tackle long standing and systemic human rights abuses — and draft a possible roadmap to a larger societal healing.

 

The most notable example: the commission in South Africa, from 1996 to 2003, following the end of apartheid — the country’s system of legalized racial segregation that lasted for more than 40 years.

 

Here’s South African civil rights leader, Desmond Tutu, describing the impact of such a process, which involved hearings and testimonies from citizens who had been impacted.

 

ARCHIVE: We have won a comprehensive victory over injustice— the injustice and evil of apartheid. We didn't know half the story. Now we have been appalled at the depth of depravity as we have listened day after day to testimonies and the revelations that have come before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission… 

 

JONES: I think Congressman Lewis admired the process in South Africa. In other words — the opportunity for people to come forward and simply tell the truth about what happened. Um, I know that there were challenges there, but I think, not that he felt like the South African process was a perfect process — but I think he liked the idea based on his belief in nonviolence. Of allowing, giving people space to be, to tell the truth so that people could find out what happened to reconcile the hole that was left in these families and the lives of these families to simply know what happened, how it happened and why it happened. But what we could get was this, and that’s part of what the legislative process is. 

 

EDWARDS: This… The Till Act. And if that sounds like a compromise, well, Jones goes on to say that, in Congress, all bills are a compromise. She describes passing legislation as a pragmatic process. Lewis didn’t think an actual truth and reconciliation process would pass through Congress, so the Till Act was, in a way, a stepping stone.

 

And even it, Jones says, faced its own hurdles as it made its way through the Congress.

 

JONES: There was, was a significant amount of concern by some Southern senators and members of Congress that there would be digging around in these areas that they thought were unsavory. And I think the only reason it did pass was in part because of the influence of Congressman Lewis who represented a kind of reconciliation that even the most cautious individual might give way to. So, it was a very tenuous situation — to say the least. 

 

EDWARDS: Usually in stories about crime or cold cases, there’s an expectation that the story — the case — will wrap up somewhere, regardless of whether justice was done. Yet with this list, there is no neat ending, no closure. Instead, a pursuit — a hope that keeps going, refusing to flicker out. Stuck somewhere in between justice and injustice as time passes.

 

But this… this is about more than cold cases — The Till Act is a story about America. And as much as it’s progressed, our country is far from reconciled with its full history. And its present.

 

Where does that leave the families? The loved ones, the friends who still miss Alberta Jones...Roman Ducksworth...Jimmie Lee Jackson?

 

Or those who miss Milton Leon Scott…a young father of two shot and killed by FBI agents in a case of mistaken identity.

 

Or Hosie Miller...a landowner, farmer, deacon...shot by a white neighbor over a dispute about wandering cattle.

 

Johnnie Mae Chappell...a house cleaner and mother of 10...shot while walking to the store to buy ice cream for her children.

 

James Brazier...a father of four targeted for being able to afford two cars.

 

Jo Etha Collier...18...a college-bound track star...shot outside a grocery store, still wearing her graduation dress.

 

Or Emmett Till — where I started this story. A 14-year-old boy...visiting relatives in Mississippi. 

 

Emmett is one of nearly two dozen people whose case remains open on the government’s list. It’s hard for me to admit but I’m still surprised when I see his name there. 

 

The two men acquitted of killing Emmett — who later confessed to his murder — have been dead for years.

 

But, new information from the woman who accused Emmett of assaulting her...which she admitted to a historian…suggested she may have lied about the interaction. It led to the case being reopened again. And there it remains.

 

It’s why Emmett’s cousin, Deborah Watts, and the rest of his family are still pushing for justice, as slim a chance as there might still be.

 

EDWARDS: What still gives you hope?

 

WATTS:  What gives me hope is that, um, there's still, um, justice to pursue. There's still accountability that, um, we need to, to, to get, there's still an apology that's not been given. There's still laws that need to be revisited. Families that, that, can recover and can be empowered and they just need a platform to, to address some of their concerns. That's what gives me hope.

 

EDWARDS: Over the years Deborah Watts has expanded her advocacy beyond just Emmett to other families on the list hoping to help share her platform. And she’s also reached out to families that are not on the list, families like George Floyd’s. CNN captured the two families together in the lead-up to the trial of the former police officer who killed Floyd in 2020. 

 

ARCHIVE: The moment they met in Minneapolis a bond was formed...A bond formed of the deepest sorrow. 

 

WATTS: There's these strong parallels, unfortunately.

 

ARCHIVE: Each experienced a violent death in the family that became a catalyst for civil rights in America. Philonise Floyd is the brother of George Floyd. Deborah Watts is the cousin of Emmett Till...

 

WATTS: We're all in a club that no one wants to belong to and their stories have to be shared and we understand it. You know, I'm not a mother or a father, you know, I didn't lose a child, but because Emmett is in my family and is part of my blood, you know, I think I can represent a little bit and lend my ear to some of them. And because they hear Emmett’s name, I can bring, you know, who he was and what happened to the forefront so they can see the similarities and they know that this fight, it has got to continue and it's going to take all of us.

 

EDWARDS: All of us.

 

Thinking about the future of the Till Act and the prospect of truth — the prospect of justice — I think about those three words:

 

All of us.

 

I think about the advocates, the journalists, the people within and beyond the halls of power. 

 

The families. The families who taught me that even something as simple as talking about loved ones, telling their stories, remembering the part of them that still lives in me...will never take the place of justice in the traditional sense. But can be a step toward something more, perhaps a new form of justice.

 

And I think about Alvin Sykes — the architect of the Till Act. When the system failed to prosecute his friend’s killer, Alvin tracked down a law that would be used to put him away. He found an answer at his public library — a place he called the “great equalizer.” 

 

I also thought about Alvin on another particular day — April 28th, 2021.

 

ARCHIVE: It took less than 10 minutes for a Georgia grand jury to indict the three men charged with murder of Ahmaud Arbery… Now federal prosecutors have indicted the three white men on federal hate crime and attempted kidnapping charges… This is the most significant civil rights prosecution to date from the Biden administration… A grand jury finding they used force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery's right to use a public street because of his race.

 

EDWARDS: Ahmaud Arbery...25 years old...shot and killed while jogging in Georgia. Reading through the headlines and reaction to his killers being charged, something else jumped out at me. 

 

One of the federal statutes cited in the charges against the three men — Title 18 Section 245(b) — sounded familiar.

 

Then, I was reminded — it’s the same federal statute Alvin Sykes used four decades earlier to pursue justice for his friend, jazz musician Steve Harvey.

 

ALVIN SYKES: This isn't just about going out and finding folks that committed these atrocities. This is about healing here in America. We’re healing. We can be a great country. We can be a great people. We can be a beacon of hope and justice for people all over the world. But in order for us to do that with justice and with the truth behind us, we got to start right here in America and clean up what we've done.

 

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