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Cold Case Justice Initiative launches Five Cities Project

Cold Case Justice Initiative

Thirteen student workers recently gathered in Atlanta for an orientation to the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) at Syracuse University and an important research project they’ll be working on this summer. The CCJI’s Five Cities Project will send these students into five southern cities to begin to take a full accounting of racially motivated killings that may have occurred between 1955 and 1980.

Atlanta, Georgia; Nashville, Tennessee; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Jackson Mississippi; and Jacksonville, Florida are the focus cities. In each city, the students will conduct document research and participate in community dialogues to identify and find residents who believe they lost loved ones in racially motivated crimes during the civil rights era.

Atlanta Regional Council members Angela Robinson ’78 and Rey Pascual ’85, an SU trustee, were instrumental in helping the CCJI plan the orientation. The 4-day program provided an overview of the CCJI, discussed the social and historical context regarding the civil rights movement, and included field trips to significant locations like the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Students heard perspectives from family members who have lost loved ones to racially-motivated violence, and various civil rights activists discussed the ongoing necessity of this work and the need for collaborative efforts. See photos from the Five Cities Project orientation.

The selected cities represent areas where the Cold Case Justice Initiative has already worked for the past six years with families who seek justice for their loved ones killed as a result of racial hatred. Important community connections are being formed to further the work of all such families in the particular region. “There is a critical need for this kind of action in more cities,” says CCJI Co-Director Professor Paula Johnson. “If we had more funds we could add many more cities to the list of those with unfinished criminal justice demands from this era.”

“By their public statements the DOJ has made it clear. They close cases when they find that the main perpetrator is deceased,” Johnson goes on to say. “They do not seem to expand the search for accomplices or go back into these scarred communities to conduct new interviews with people who are willing to talk today. The FBI would rather rely on 40-year-old paperwork and are leaving the difficult part up to non-governmental organizations like ours.” 

The growing realization of a critical need for the Five Cities Project resulted from six years of intensive research by the Cold Case Justice Initiative. An effort began in the summer of 2010 to find out just how many victims of racial violence are not included on any list of the FBI, the Justice Department or local law enforcement agencies.  Over the course of a year and a half, a canvassing effort revealed startling figures both in scope and size. The CCJI’s preliminary investigation had uncovered 196 suspicious deaths in 10 states and realized there were many similar suspicious killings to investigate. This list of names was turned over to the FBI in the fall of 2012. To date there has been no response from the Justice Department or the FBI about this list.

“The 2008 Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act required the Justice Department and the FBI to ‘expeditiously investigate’ and ‘provide all the resources necessary to ensure timely and thorough investigations’ of unsolved civil rights murders,” states Professor Janis McDonald, co-director of the Initiative. “There is no sense of urgency reflecting the intent of Congress in passing this law, however. There are still perpetrators living in these communities who have escaped the criminal accountability demanded by any fair sense of justice.” Listen to a radio interview with McDonald.

For the co-directors of the CCJI, the Emmett Till Act has been a failed promise to the families and to society. “We feel the government should be deeply embarrassed and determined to act now while there is still time and while the law requires this effort,” explains McDonald. “There has never been a full accounting of all the people who disappeared or were slain due to racial hatred during the civil rights era, and it should not be relegated to history. We are left with no moral choice but to help these families continue their struggle for justice. The Five Cities Project is a step in that direction.”

This project is a natural evolution for the CCJI as it maintains its pledge: continued support for family members wanting to know the truth, and its collaborations with investigators and journalists who’ve committed themselves to searching for the same in these senseless murders and cover-ups.

To learn more about the Cold Case Justice Initiative, or to support the CCJI, visit coldcaselaw.syr.edu.