LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication has launched a searchable web site detailing heretofore sealed FBI investigative findings in a dozen Civil Rights-era hate murders in Louisiana and southern Mississippi.
The site displays the ongoing work of the school's Cold Case Project and includes more than 150,000 pages of FBI findings, resulting stories, photographs and letters from the U.S. Department of Justice to the victims' next of kin. That correspondence details what FBI agents found when they reopened unsolved cases from the 1950s and 1960s some eight years ago.
The Cold Case Project was launched in 2010 and nearly three dozen students, comprised mainly of seniors and graduate students, have worked on cases since then. The creation of the web site, about 18 months in the making, was underwritten by a grant from the national Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and the Manship School Excellence Fund.
The site was designed by Minjie Li, a doctoral student at Manship. The content was assembled and programed by undergraduates Joshua Jackson, Justin McAcy and Jennifer Vance.
The interactive site can be accessed at HYPERLINK "www.lsucoldcaseproject.com"www.lsucoldcaseproject.com
The investigative reports had been stored in FBI files and in the National Archives until requested by the Project Team under the Freedom of Information Act. The Justice Department’s next-of-kin letters and memoranda of findings also were released under FOIA requests to the Manship School team. The latter were featured on the front page of The New York Times in March 2013.
The regional murders are part of a larger Justice Department Cold Case Initiative, launched in 2006, which spotlighted some 124 unsolved Civil Rights-era 124 murders – men, women and teens -- mostly Ku Klux Klan related. Nearly all of the deaths occurred in southern states with Mississippi and Louisiana having the largest number. Fewer than a dozen of the cases remain active today.
“The beauty of this database is that detailed information on civil-rights-era murders now is easily accessible by anyone, not just by scholars and journalists who are willing to dig through thousands of documents,” noted Manship School Dean Jerry Ceppos.
Many thousands of additional pages of FBI case files are pending release under FOIA requests. When released, they will be added to the digital database, said James E. Shelledy, a professional in residence at the Manship School and faculty coordinator of the project.
"The team’s primary focus is to bring closure to African-American communities which have lingered decades without fully knowing what federal agents learned about the deaths of family members and friends," said Shelledy. Agents at the time did their best to solve these vicious killings, he said, but were thwarted by intimidated witnesses, Klan-sympathizing local lawmen and white juries which refused to convict whites of murdering blacks.
The Cold Case Project is part of the Field Experience class in which students report and write stories for daily newspapers in Louisiana and southern Mississippi. The class also houses the Wrongful Conviction team which reports on cases where Louisianans, almost always black, are serving life sentences in prosecutions and trials that may have been prejudicial, unfair, or otherwise tainted.
The Cold Case Project also has been assisting Stanley Nelson, editor of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, who has worked to solve 50-year-old hate crimes in the Ferriday-Vidalia-Natchez area and for which he was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2011. The student team has been sharing its FBI files with Nelson.
Many members of the Cold Case Project team have graduated and gone on to journalistic careers in Louisiana and nationally. Most are natives of the South and their investigative work on these crimes many times proved to be an eye-opening, emotional experience, said Shelledy.
Traveling to Washington, D.C., interviewing top FBI brass and combing through their investigative files on “under-the-radar incidents” that no one else had seen was “an out of this world experience,” recalls Robert Stewart, a member of the inaugural Cold Case Project team and now assistant editor of the Baton Rouge Business Report. “But visiting and standing on actual (murder sites) had far greater impact on me.”
In addition to LSU, Syracuse, Northeastern and Emory universities have programs and web sites that investigate unsolved homicides during the Civil Rights-era.
Nelson, who is finishing a book on Klan violence in the region, noted the Manship School students he has worked with are set apart by the fact “they appreciate the responsibility and the privilege of reporting on unwritten history of this nation.”
Noting the difficulty and challenges of investigating unsolved murders nearly a half-century after the fact, Nelson said the students’ character and work ethic in their pursuit of the truth “inspires” him.