Cheese. (popehippo) wrote in ontd_political,

TV Series Tries to Revive Civil Rights Cold Cases

The murder has never been solved: On Feb. 27, 1967, Wharlest Jackson, a father of five and the treasurer of the Natchez, Miss., branch of the N.A.A.C.P., was killed by a car bomb, making him just one of dozens of victims of racial violence during the civil rights era. To add an element of horror, Mr. Jackson’s 8-year-old son heard the explosion, bicycled to the scene and discovered his own father.

The younger Mr. Jackson remembers the moment in “The Injustice Files,” a new series about civil rights era “cold cases” beginning on Friday on the Investigation Discovery channel.

“When I made it to him, he was lying in the street,” Wharlest Jackson Jr. says. “His shoe was blown off. And the truck was all mangled.”

Better known for crime fare like “I (Almost) Got Away With It” and “Deadly Women,” Investigation Discovery is using Black History Month to turn the spotlight on three unsolved, racially motivated killings of the 1960s. For Keith Beauchamp, the 39-year-old documentary filmmaker who is an executive producer of the series and its host, it is familiar terrain. He’s been involved with these cases for years, since starting the 2005 documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” about a 14-year-old who was tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for supposedly whistling at a white woman.

Information uncovered by Mr. Beauchamp, as well as by the filmmaker Stanley Nelson (working on his own 2003 film, “The Murder of Emmett Till”) led to the reopening of that case.

The Justice Department said in 2004 that evidence suggested that more than the two men originally tried and acquitted of Till’s murder may have been involved. But in February 2007 a grand jury in Leflore County, Miss., declined to issue any new indictments, effectively ending further prosecution.

Since then Mr. Beauchamp has produced and directed two television programs about cold cases: “Murder in Black and White” on TV One in 2008 and “Wanted Justice: Johnnie Mae Chappell,” on the History Channel in 2009.

“I’ve been asked to do so many things, including features,” said Mr. Beauchamp, who grew up near Baton Rouge, La. “I’ve turned them down because my heart is with these civil rights cases. I truly feel this is my calling. I never would have been a filmmaker had it not been for Emmett Till.”

He was only about 10 when he became obsessed with the story of Till, Mr. Beauchamp said, after he found a Jet magazine photo of Till’s bloated and battered body.

While Emmett Till’s chilling story is perhaps the most well known of the era, the “Injustice Files,” to be broadcast over three consecutive Friday nights, focuses on lesser-known cases. They come straight from the files of a federal initiative announced in 2007 to solve more than 100 pre-1970 cold cases. The series was created with the participation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“The more people are aware of these crimes, the better the chance to find what they’re looking for,” Christopher Allen, an F.B.I. spokesman, said of the bureau’s participation.

It suggested cases to Mr. Beauchamp that stood to benefit the most from publicity but did not give him special access to its files. There are a few surprises.

A white man is the murder victim in the case examined in the March 4 episode, “He Walked Alone.” The body of William Lewis Moore, a postal worker and member of the Congress of Racial Equality was found by the side of an Alabama road on April 23, 1963. He had been shot after staging a walk from Tennessee to Mississippi to deliver a pro-civil rights letter to the governor of Mississippi.

And the Feb. 25 episode, “The Ghosts of Bogalusa,” shows that even black law-enforcement officers were singled out. On June 2, 1965, a year after they were named the first black sheriff’s deputies in Washington Parish, La., Oneal Moore and David Creed Rogers were ambushed and shot in their car. Mr. Moore, 34, was killed, and Mr. Rogers was wounded.

Each of the three one-hour episodes features Mr. Beauchamp interviewing family members, law-enforcement officials and witnesses, and poring over old records. There are also some dramatic re-enactments of scenes. In “The Secrets of Natchez” Mr. Beauchamp even confronts a potential suspect.

Also seen tracking down leads and being interviewed by Mr. Beauchamp is Cynthia Deitle, the chief of the F.B.I.’s civil rights unit when the series was shot. Viewers with information about the crimes will be able to contact the bureau through the Investigation Discovery Web site.

“One of the major obstacles the F.B.I. has is convincing people to come forward,” Mr. Beauchamp said in an interview from his office in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. “People are often more willing to talk to a filmmaker than to talk to the F.B.I.”

New evidence has come to light in some of the cases covered in “Murder in Black and White,” Mr. Beauchamp said, though there have yet to be new prosecutions.

Theodore M. Shaw, a professor at Columbia Law School and the former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said, “The culture of our country is that these shows do produce an audience.”

He added: “It’s not just a question of whether someone is sentenced to prison, but the inviolate right to prosecute these cases. It’s a kind of truth and reconciliation.”

Mr. Jackson, a 52-year-old demolition expert who lives in Natchez, said in a recent interview that he shares that view through shards of grief. “I came home with his flesh still in his shoe,” he said, recalling his father’s killing.

His murder was in apparent retaliation for his N.A.A.C.P. affiliation and for taking a “white” job as a chemical mixer at a tire and rubber factory in Natchez.

“I hope that America begins to see the hero he was to break the back of Jim Crow here in Mississippi,” Mr. Jackson said of his father.

Mr. Jackson said he was dissatisfied with the F.B.I.’s response to the killing. But “I thought Keith was able to understand,” he said, referring to Mr. Beauchamp.

Jeffrey Heinze, a supervisory special agent for the bureau, said that he understood Mr. Jackson’s feelings of impatience, but added that the elder Mr. Jackson’s murder has been “actively investigated” since it was reinitiated.

Other families and civil rights organizations have complained that not enough money and resources have gone into solving the cold cases, a charge the F.B.I. has denied. In fiscal 2010, the Justice Department received $1.6 million for the unsolved crimes initiative. So far, investigations into 56 of the 109 cases have been concluded, with two successful prosecutions. Mr. Heinze said that most suspects in the cases the bureau had closed were dead.

“After ‘Emmett Till,’ so many families reached out to me,” Mr. Beauchamp said of why he keeps producing programs about crimes from 50 or 60 years ago. “I feel like a dinosaur, but we still deal with issues of race and social injustice, and there are so many stories to tell.”

Tags: crime, history, race / racism

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