Wharlest Jackson Jr. and Denise Ford

WHARLEST JACKSON JR. and sister, Denise Ford, stand beside a plaque honoring their father in Natchez. (Photo courtesy LSU Manship School Student Cold Case Project)

Three local murders dating back almost a half century are among 39 of 111 Civil Rights-era cold cases that will remain under investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed in its annual Attorney General's Report to Congress in October.

Seventy-nine cases have been closed, the report says. All told, the 111 cold cases reviewed by the FBI beginning in 2006 represent 124 victims, according to DOJ.

News that probes into local cases will remain active was welcomed by family members who expressed hope that justice will prevail for their loved ones.

"I just hope I live to find out what really happened to my brother," Julia Dobbins of Bridge City, La., said Monday. "My mother died in 1990 without knowing."

Dobbins' brother, Joseph Edwards, 25, a porter at the Vidalia Shamrock Motel, disappeared 47 years ago. His car was found abandoned on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. Edwards was believed murdered in an orchestrated attack by Klansmen and local law enforcement.

The two other local cases that remain open, according to DOJ, are the 1964 arson murder of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris, 51, and the carbombing murder of Natchez NAACP president Wharlest Jackson, 37, in 1967.

Denise Ford of Natchez, daughter of Jackson, said she is joyful that her father's case remains active. She said she clings to hope that the murder will be solved and believes the perpetrators will one day "be identified whether they are alive or dead."

Of the three local cases under investigation by the FBI, the Morris murder has been the subject of a parish Grand Jury investigation since February. The 2011 AG Report noted that DOJ is "continuing to vigorously pursue the Morris murder case."

"I pray that Papa Frank gets justice," said Morris' granddaughter, Rosa Williams of Las Vegas. She was 12 when Morris was killed.

Two other regional cases remain active, DOJ reported. They include the 1964 ambush shooting of Clifton Walker in Woodville, Miss., and the 1965 shooting of Johnny Queen in Fayette, Miss.

DOJ reported the status of the cold case investigations in its third annual report to Congress, authorized by the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007.

The 39 cases still under investigation are located in seven states, including Mississippi, 14; Georgia, seven; Louisiana, six; Alabama and South Carolina, four each; Florida, two; and Arkansas and New York, one each.

According to the AG Report, "there are certain difficulties inherent in all cold cases: subjects die; witnesses die or can no longer be located; memories become clouded; evidence is destroyed or cannot be located; original investigations lacked the technical and scientific advances relied upon today. In addition, with regard to civil rights cold cases, it appears that in some instances, members of local law enforcement agencies were either themselves members of the Ku Klux Klan, or sympathized with Klan viewpoints, which may have impacted their investigations into racially motivated homicides."

DOJ's decision to close the bulk of the cases is unfortunate, according to the Syracuse University College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI), which seeks justice for the victims, families and communities where the crimes occurred.

"We are very disappointed by the FBI/DOJ’s recently released report which has revealed shockingly few prosecutorial results," said CCJI co-director Paula Johnson. "The closure of a majority of cases means that many families will not receive the justice or closure that they so desire and deserve. Nor will they have confidence or assurance that their government did what it could when it could to bring the perpetrators of racially-motivated violent crimes to answer for their crimes against their loved ones.

"We firmly believe that more investigative efforts are warranted in these cases, and that the list upon which the FBI/DOJ relies represents only a fraction of the racially-motivated cases that occurred during the Civil Rights Era. It is never too late for justice and we urge the FBI/DOJ, local law enforcement, and Congress to ensure identification of the full number of racially-motivated cases so that the perpetrators of these crimes will be identified and brought to justice."

For families of the victims of unsolved cases, the lack of resolution locks them in a limbo of anguish few can understand.

Julia Dobbins said her mother, Bernice Conner, was convinced that Joseph Edwards, the Shamrock porter, was killed by the Klan. In the months and years after Edwards went missing, Dobbins said her mother never gave up hope as the family contended with hideous rumors and speculation.

"People would tell us all kinds of tales," Dobbins said. Once the family was told Edwards was "in some parish in Louisiana and his tongue had been cut out."

Unlike most victim families, however, the relatives of Edwards have yet to hold a funeral service. Edwards' body has never been found.

"I just want to know what happened to my brother," Dobbins said. "I just want to say good-bye."

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