Justice Overdue: Civil Rights Cases Reopened

Unpunished crimes revisited after decades of neglect

by Borgna Brunner
FBI photographs of Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner

FBI photographs of slain civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner

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Some of the most infamous crimes of the civil rights movement—the killing of four young girls in the Birmingham church bombing, the KKK mob murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, the gunning down of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in front of his small children, and the torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till—helped galvanize public opinion in support of the civil rights movement by making it impossible to ignore the brutality and virulence of southern racism.

Yet these very crimes that graphically exposed the moral bankruptcy of white supremacy remained largely unpunished for decades, languishing as a result of racism, fear, apathy, and lack of political will. Tepid investigations and cursory trials did take place, and some light prison sentences were meted out, but a number of the perpetrators continued to enjoy impunity for the next several decades. Several of these killers finished out their days as unrepentant racists.

Despite the passing of years—in which evidence grew cold, witnesses vanished, died, or no longer were capable of reliable testimony—a number of these festering crimes have been resurrected with renewed vigor and prosecuted with impressive results. It took 30 years, but the murderer of Medgar Evers was finally brought to justice. And a full four decades passed before the courts were able to convict all living perpetrators of the Birmingham bombing. According the Southern Poverty Law Center, about 22 murder cases have been reopened in the South since 1989, resulting in 25 arrests and 16 convictions.

But in two particularly brutal and high-profile cases, the Emmett Till murder case and that of the three Mississippi civil rights workers—James E. Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—justice may never be fully served.

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