Justice Dept. still probing civil rights era police killings

Dec 8, 2021, 8:42 AM | Updated: 4:27 pm

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The Justice Department’s decision to close its investigation of Emmett Till’s slaying all but ended the possibility of new charges in the teen’s death 66 years ago, yet agents are still probing as many as 20 other civil rights cold cases, including the police killings of 13 Black men in three Southern states decades ago.

The department is reviewing the killings of six men shot by police during a racial rebellion in Augusta, Georgia, in 1970, according to the agency’s latest report to Congress. The city best known for hosting golf’s Masters Tournament had been engulfed by riots after a Black teenager was beaten to death in the county jail.

The agency also is investigating the killings of seven other Black men involved in student protests in South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana during the societal upheaval of the late 1960s and early ’70s. And investigators are looking at cases in which seven more individuals were killed, including a girl in Pennsylvania, the report showed.

Suspects were already tried and acquitted in some of these killings, making prosecution on the same charges all but impossible. Fading memories, lost evidence and the death of potential witnesses almost always pose problems in the quest for justice in decades-old cases.

Still, in Georgia, a leader of a group formed to tell the story of the “Augusta Six” — John Bennett, Sammie L. McCullough, Charlie Mack Murphy, James Stokes, Mack Wilson and William Wright Jr. — hopes some type of justice will prevail for the victims’ families, even if it’s not a criminal conviction.

“With the Justice Department’s stamp on it, even a statement that the killings were wrongful would help even if there’s no prosecutions. I think that would be very helpful for the community,” said John Hayes of the 1970 Augusta Riot Observance Committee.

The Justice Department said Monday it had ended its investigation into the 1955 lynching of Till, the Black teenager from Chicago who was tortured, killed and thrown in a river in Mississippi after witnesses said he whistled at a white woman at a rural store. Two white men who were acquitted by all-white juries later confessed to the killing in a paid magazine interview, but both are dead and officials said no new charges were possible.

The Justice Department Cold Case Initiative began in 2006 and was formalized the following year under a law named for Till, whose slaying came to illustrate the depth and brutality of racial hatred in the Jim Crow South. Initially created to investigate other unresolved cases of the civil rights era, it was later expanded to include more recent cases, including killings that occurred in cities and on college campuses during demonstrations against the Vietnam War and racism.

In Augusta, as many as 3,000 people were estimated to have participated in protests and rioting that followed the death of 16-year-old Charles Oatman, who was beaten to death while being held in the jail. Frustration over his death and years of complaints over racial inequity erupted in unrest that left an estimated $1 million in damage across a wide area.

Once the gunfire ended early on May 12, 1970, six Black men were dead from shots fired by police, authorities said. Two white officers were charged, one with killing John Stokes and the other with wounding another person, but both were acquitted by all- or mostly white juries.

Families are still grieving, Hayes said, but the killings generally aren’t discussed much in Augusta.

“There’s a lot of trauma there and things people don’t want to bring up,” said Hayes, whose group is in contact with relatives of half the victims.

The other police shootings under review were sparked by campus demonstrations amid simmering resentment over mistreatment of Black people.

Three men were killed on Feb. 8, 1968, during protests to desegregate a bowling alley near South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Nine state police officers were acquitted in what came to be known as the “Orangeburg Massacre,” and a campus sports arena now honors the three victims, Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith.

Phillip Gibbs and James Earl Green were killed by police during a student demonstration at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, on May 15, 1970, and Leonard Brown and Denver Smith were gunned down during a protest at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Nov. 16, 1972. No one was ever prosecuted for the killings in Jackson or Baton Rouge.

The seven other cases still under review by the Justice Department span the years 1959 through 1970 and involve individuals. The victims include 9-year-old Donna Reason, killed on May 18, 1970, when someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the home of her mixed-race family in Chester, Pennsylvania. No one was ever arrested.


Reeves is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Republican presidential candidates, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, talking with forme...

Associated Press

The GOP debate field was asked about Trump. But most of the stage’s attacks focused on Nikki Haley

The four Republican presidential candidates debating Wednesday night mostly targeted each other instead of Donald Trump.

4 days ago

Law enforcement officers head into the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, campus after reports of an ...

Associated Press

Police say 3 dead, fourth wounded and shooter also dead in University of Nevada, Las Vegas attack

Police said a suspect was found dead Wednesday as officers responded to an active shooter and reports of multiple victims at UNLV.

4 days ago

President Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, leaves after a court appearance, July 26, 2023, in Wilming...

Associated Press

Republicans threaten contempt proceedings if Hunter Biden refuses to appear for deposition

House Republicans are threatening to hold Hunter Biden in contempt if he does not show up this month for a closed-door deposition.

4 days ago

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., listens to a question during a news conference, March 30, 2022, in W...

Associated Press

Tuberville is ending blockade of most military nominees, clearing way for hundreds to be approved

Sen. Tommy Tuberville announced Tuesday that he's ending his blockade of hundreds of military promotions, following heavy criticism.

5 days ago

An employee works inside the Hanwha Qcells Solar plant on Oct. 16, 2023, in Dalton, Ga. On Tuesday,...

Associated Press

US job openings fall to lowest level since March 2021 as labor market cools

U.S. employers posted 8.7 million job openings in October, the fewest since March 2021, in a sign that hiring is cooling.

5 days ago

Megyn Kelly poses at The Hollywood Reporter's 25th annual Women in Entertainment Breakfast, Dec. 7,...

Associated Press

The fourth GOP debate will be a key moment for the young NewsNation cable network

By airing the fourth Republican presidential debate, NewsNation network will almost certainly reach the largest audience in its history.

5 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Follow @KTAR923...

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.


Dierdre Woodruff

Interest rates may have peaked. Should you buy a CD, high-yield savings account, or a fixed annuity?

Interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, and it looks like the Fed has paused hikes. This may be the best time to lock in rates for long-term, low-risk financial products like fixed annuities.

Follow @KTAR923...

West Hunsaker at Morris Hall supports Make-A-Wish Foundation in Arizona

KTAR's Community Spotlight this month focuses on Morris Hall and its commitment to supporting the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Arizona.

Justice Dept. still probing civil rights era police killings