Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project Archive
To the Dead We Owe the Truth
Rhonda Jones, Ph.D.
The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice (CRRJ) Project, founded by Professor Margaret Burnham at Northeastern University School of Law, owes its origins to the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act of 2007. The Act authorizes the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other entities within the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) to expeditiously investigate unsolved civil rights homicides that occurred before 1970. The Act also mandates that institutions of higher education and the DOJ-designated entities coordinate and share full accounts of all victims whose deaths or disappearances were the result of racially motivated crimes; hold accountable under federal and state law, individuals who were perpetrators of, or accomplices in, unsolved civil rights murders and disappearances; and keep families apprised about the status of the investigations.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, investigative work led by journalist Ida B. Wells, Tuskegee University Sociologist Dr. Monroe Work, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), chronicled documentary evidence of lynchings and the miscarriages of racial violence in the attempt to secure the passage of federal anti-lynching legislation.
The continuance of their activities, coupled with the research of social scientists, historians, archivists, librarians, and others, and the authorization of the Till Act, inspired CRRJ’s initiative to re-examine unsolved civil rights cases that were improperly handled between 1930 to 1970, including matters where prosecution was once considered no longer possible in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The Act’s requirement that the compilation of any documents and materials, including Freedom of Information Act requests, be developed into a fully accessible repository, aligns with CRRJ’s goal to expand its case dockets by collecting archival materials.
Conception for the archive began in 2010. With a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, CRRJ began shaping its research project as a means to discover, document, and define the historical content and the scope of the archive. Often starting with nothing more than a newspaper article that identifies an individual by name or reported as “Unknown Negro,” law and journalism students working in collaboration with descendants, community organizations, civic groups, and law enforcement agencies, have been engaged in exploratory fieldwork for nearly a decade. The meticulous research attempts to uncover what is possible to still be known about the victims victims’ deaths and what then followed, focusing on the presence or absence of investigation and prosecution for their deaths.
Evidence has shown that more often than not these individuals hadn’t committed any crime. A forced confession didn’t mean they were actually guilty, legally or otherwise. Beaten and tortured mercilessly for hours or days, people will confess to anything. What we do know is that no human being deserved to be abducted, hunted, and killed at the hands of a deputized posse or a rabid mob.
The work is motivated by an urgency to learn the truth and thereby honor the dead in the face of the imperatives of time and the dwindling number of descendants and witnesses whose narratives go unrecorded due to age, declining health, and other reasons.
More important, records have been destroyed by court house fires, are placed at deteriorated risk due to age or improper storage, or rendered inaccessible due to poor filing systems.
Most important, evidence has been overtly and covertly limited in local public offices due to mismanaged record-keeping practices, manipulation, loss, or destruction of documents.
To date, CRRJ’s preliminary academic and journalistic investigations into over 400 cases of racial homicides has generated over 20,000 items, to wit, documentary records captured from the pages of legal documents, political pamphlets, personal letters, photographs, scrapbooks, audio/video interviews, genealogical information, census records, maps, newspapers, vital statistics, and records from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice, and state and local governmental agencies.
Unlike other repositories and lynching databases that center on the horrific images of gnarled, mangled, charred, hung, and dismembered black bodies, the CRRJ archive sheds new light of the regenerative effects of the denial of basic justice.
By offering holistic portrayals of ministers, laborers, farmers, honorably discharged servicemen, prosperous business and property owners, unsuspecting juveniles, wives, and mothers, it is unique in that it examines what happened and gives voice to the individuals, families, and communities who suffered at the hands of domestic terrorists.
The archive is expansive and the process of collecting comprehensive accounts of racial killings during the period is ongoing. CRRJ has coordinated three “history harvests,” entitled Resurrecting Their Stories centered on the Middle, Northern, and Southern judicial districts of Alabama (June 2017 in Tuskegee, Alabama, October 2017 in Birmingham, and March 2018 in Selma). The purpose of these events is to allow descendants and witnesses to share their story and contribute materials for the archive. The discovery of new materials will be compiled, collated, and added to the collection for use in current and future projects. The long-term objective of the project is to develop an aggregated repository of racial homicides, lynching incidents and averted deaths.
This research supports contemporary public policy and criminal justice initiatives by providing to academics, legislators, and community stakeholders accurate data with which to analyze the effects of anti-civil rights violence. The case dockets tell the stories of an abundance of African-American spouses, parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins who succumbed to racial violence, and of their relatives, who often do not know what happened. The research documents the obvious: that families were often deeply affected by these cases. In some cases, family members were forced to witness the brutal violence and death inflicted on their loved ones. The palpable threat of violence hung over their lives as a result of these incidents. Often they had to abandon their property and possessions, were forced into obscurity, or fled from the South. Dispersed and separated from their homes, relatives and communities, for many the loss of place erased them from the cultural landscape. The stories emerging from these cases show the common threads of violence and insecurity faced by African-Americans at the time. As well, they teach us how this violence affects perceptions of law and law enforcement today.