“It’s Never Too Late for Justice”
Many of the unsolved racially-motivated killings that were committed during the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s are now more than 40 years old. However, the passage of time does not lessen the imperative to hold individual and institutional perpetrators accountable for these crimes; rather, it increases it. The hard-fought and ongoing struggles and sacrifices for racial justice and racial equality in American society demand that perpetrators answer to victims’ surviving family members, communities, and the nation for their heinous crimes, no matter how long it takes. The principles and promise of American democracy require nothing less than the thorough pursuit and achievement of justice in these cases.
In March 2007, CCJI received a request from family members of Frank Morris to reopen his 1964 murder investigation. Morris was a 51-year-old African American business owner in Ferriday, Louisiana. On December 10, 1964, Morris was pushed at gunpoint back into his burning store by suspected members of the Ku Klux Klan. He died four days later of burns over nearly 100 percent of his body. Although the FBI identified witnesses who pointed to two local law enforcement officers, no charges or indictments followed, and the case was dropped. CCJI’s work has greatly expanded after receiving requests for assistance from other victims’ families and upon examining a list of 75 such cases that have been identified by the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Urban League. CCJI has identified far more cases not on any list and is pursuing numerous cases for potential reopening and prosecution by state and federal law enforcement officials.
For more than four decades, family members of individuals who were murdered during the Civil Rights Era have sought answers about their loved ones’ killings and justice against those who caused their deaths. CCJI assists and advocates on behalf of families and works to reinvestigate or newly investigate unsolved Civil Rights Era murders so that individual, organizational, and institutional perpetrators will be held legally accountable through prosecutions or civil actions in state or federal courts and held publicly accountable through documentation of parties and entities that are responsible for these crimes.
CCJI seeks to train students in law and other disciplines to become passionate civil rights and human rights advocates, and to develop and use their professional skills in pursuit of social justice and equality for all people in the U.S. and international societies.
Program Features and Pedagogy
CCJI Program and Project Seminar CCJI includes a cadre of student volunteers and students who enroll in the project seminar “Investigating and Reopening Civil Rights Era Murders,” taught by Professors Johnson and McDonald, CCJI co-directors. In this interdisciplinary program, students from law, journalism, and other disciplines receive extensive professional skills training, engage in discussions from their diverse disciplinary, identity, and experiential perspectives, and collaborate on investigations of their selected cases.
CCJI and Syracuse University sponsored the program, “It’s Never Too Late for Justice: Pursuing Civil Rights Era Cold Cases” on April 23-25, 2010, in Atlanta, Georgia. The event included a gathering of nearly 70 family members of victims of Civil Rights Era racial violence. This was the first opportunity for many of the family members to meet others with whom they shared similar experiences and to discuss their concerns, needs, and goals. The weekend also included a public forum on Civil Rights Era Cold Cases, which featured presentations by family members, mental health experts, and CCJI co-directors. The program was capped by a musical performance by Civil Rights Era artist and activist Mavis Staples at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
As a result of CCJI efforts, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, and the District Attorney for Concordia Parish, Louisiana, formally agreed to a joint alliance to work on the Frank Morris murder investigation in Ferriday, Louisiana. CCJI co-directors met with key personnel in all three locations to facilitate this joint effort. Based on their representations, a federal and a local grand jury may be convened in the near future to begin formal inquiries into possible indictments.
In July 2009, CCJI met with the United States Attorney General Eric Holder and other Civil Rights Era advocates and activists in Washington, D.C., to press for a combined strike force in Mississippi and Louisiana. Attorney General Holder is aware of CCJI’s work and its assistance in furthering FBI/Department of Justice investigations.
CCJI organized volunteer students from Syracuse University College of Law, Howard University Law School, and Catholic University Law School to obtain over 7,000 previously unreviewed documents in the Wharlest Jackson Sr., murder investigation. Jackson was murdered in February 1967 and the file, the students discovered, contained hundreds of pages of documents that are key to the investigations in the Frank Morris investigation, the Joseph Edwards investigation, and the relationship between those two murders, as well as the later bombings of George Metcalfe and Wharlest Jackson Sr. The Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, local prosecutors, and FBI agents involved were unaware of these documents, or that there was a file on Joseph Edwards.
CCJI works with colleagues in other universities, law schools, professional fields, and community organizations. Relevant collaborations and disciplinary intersections include law school clinical programs, African American Studies, journalists and journalism schools, social work, psychiatry, psychology, and forensics.
Wharlest and Exerlena Jackson Legacy Project
Director Paula Johnson and CCJI students work with the Jackson family in sponsoring the Wharlest and Exerlena Jackson Legacy Project, which commemorates the legacies of Wharlest Jackson, Sr. and his wife Exerlena, and their contributions and ultimate sacrifices for racial justice, educational and employment opportunity, voting rights, and full participation in United States society. The program includes speakers, and workshops for high school and junior high school students, parents, educators, and the public. The program will take place on April 1-2, 2022, on Zoom. Registration details to come. Inquiries can be sent to The Jackson Legacy Project.
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Paula C. Johnson
Professor of Law