Civil Rights Reporter Offers Lesson for A Present That Threatens to Become Eerily Like the Past

NEW YORK — The story might sound familiar. A white couple, Harry and Doris Hopper, residents in a quiet suburb of Macon, Georgia, urgently called the police one evening to report a crime. Someone had broken into her car and stolen her handgun, a .22 caliber pistol, from the glove compartment. The police, two officers, arrived and asked Doris Hopper if she could identify the thief. It was a young black man, she said.

The officers, James L. Durden and Josh T. Brown, asked the Hoppers to climb into their cruiser to look for the suspect and point him out if they saw him. After driving around for a while, the officers checked at the schoolyard behind the G.W. Carver Elementary School on Hazel Street.

“That’s the man,” Doris shouted, pointing to A.C. Hall, a 17-year-old who was standing with his girlfriend, Eloise Franklin, who had sat down to rest her feet during a walk home and to remove some dirt that worked its way into her shoe.

The cruiser pulled up, its headlights illuminating the couple. Hall saw the police car and pleaded with Franklin to run. She did not. Hall did. One of the officers started shooting before he got out of the car. Hall was shot through the back, a bullet piercing his heart. He fell beneath a streetlamp and died.

“I pulled out my gun and held it to the left side,” Officer Brown would later say. “I was shooting to the left side, just pulling the trigger fast as I could pull it because whenever he turned, first thing that popped in my mind was the danger that we was in and Mr. and Mrs. Hopper was in the car with us.”

It might be easy to think that between the recent wave of high profile deaths of young black men and teens killed by law enforcement  -- of Ramarley Graham and Eric Garner at the hands of police in New York City, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Walter Scott in North Charleston -- that this fatal shooting of this particular young black man may have slipped through the cracks.. Another young black man was shot by the police but there were no Black Lives Matter protests. That civil rights organization wouldn’t come into existence for more than five decades.

Hall was killed on Oct. 13, 1962.

A coroner’s inquest found the police officer murdered Hall, nearly unheard of in the Jim Crow south, and the officers were suspended. But a grand jury disagreed. They produced no true bill, and the officers were reinstated. There was outrage from the local community. More than 100 black Macon residents organized protests and boycotts. They brought a petition to the City Council and urged them to take action against the officers who killed Hall, but it was to no avail.

Years later, one of the officers would become a mayor.

Never Run Again

Hank Klibanoff an author, as well as the project managing editor of the  Civil Rights Cold Case Project at Emory University, recounted this story at the Pulitzer Hall at Columbia University Thursday afternoon. The event was sponsored by the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, the Polk Fund and the Columbia Journalism Association of Black Journalists.  

Klibanoff gave a presentation, one part history lesson and one part warning shot to future journalists, titled “Exposing Racism: The Role of the Press in Covering, Exposing, or Ignoring the Race Story.” Klibanoff, who won a Pulitzer for the book he co-wrote with Gene Roberts, “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” talked about an added urgency to covering the race beat in the wake of the election of Donald Trump.

Trump rode into office on a wave of racist rhetoric and appointed Steve Bannon, the architect and executive chairman of Breitbart News, an “alt-right” website that advocates rabidly white supremacist viewpoints, as a chief counselor and strategist with an office in the White House.

The moderator asked Klibanoff about the title of his book, and wondered whether he thought 2016 — with Trump’s election — would be another awakening in America over race.

“I think it’s a real gobsmack, and I don’t know how long it takes us to wake up,” Klibanoff said to a crowd of several dozen attendees. “People don’t just wake up one day understanding everything and they’re going to vote their fears, as long as there’s someone to play their fears. I saw it in the South.”

Klibanoff belongs to a community of journalists, investigators and filmmakers spread throughout the country and the continent who are dedicated to the twin goals of solving racially motivated crimes in the South and in small towns and cities along the Gulf, and unearthing civil rights killings that have been covered up by law enforcement and citizens in towns that kept quiet.

There have been names of victims added to increasingly growing lists that groups like Southern Poverty Law Center out of Montgomery and the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University’s College of Law have been compiling. The FBI has a list that is part of the Emmett Till Act, but most experts say that list is incomplete, and the FBI has not added names that researchers and investigators have uncovered in their own efforts.

There are still crimes that remain not only unsolved, but unreported -- especially in smaller towns near the Gulf that were not at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement like Selma, Alabama or Oxford, Mississippi or Little Rock, Arkansas. Take the small town of Marianna in the Florida panhandle -- the seat for Jackson County that sits about 70 miles west of Tallahassee and 30 miles south of the Georgia and Alabama border. Of the four victims of unsolved racially motivated crimes in the entire state two of them come from Marianna, and another, the murder of a teenager last seen in the back of a Sheriff’s car in the early 1960s -- remains a mystery that has never surfaced in any official records. The more they look, the more they expect to find. Experts suspect that the list has a lot of room to grow.

Klibanoff runs the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, a seminar class at Emory that digs into these old civil rights cases and tries to fill the void left by law enforcement, which in many cases has abandoned these cases of racially motivated killings during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights Era.

His presentation ranged from the past to the present, from the violence visited on blacks and the efforts of law enforcement to cover up the crimes, to the shootings of police sometimes playing on social media. He stressed the importance of continuing to investigate these old cases, even if there is no hope of a prosecution, insisting that the surviving families and demands of justice deserve the truth. He encouraged the budding journalists in the audience who have the desire to cover the race beat of the present to take lessons from the past.

“You never want to tell someone that their fears are unfounded and you never want to tell anyone that their fears are exaggerated. And there’s going to be some mean things happening in the land over the next few months, I’m not saying mean things won’t happen,” he said. “But I don’t mind saying, and I don’t care if you’re a journalist or you’re selling insurance, we all have to decide if we’re going to live our lives in fear -- and I don’t.”

He talked about the threats faced by journalists covering the pressing issues of the day -- from savage killings to the swirl of violence and rage around integration. He said the threat was especially acute for members of the black press, who he said were instrumental to informing the black community and getting the story into mainstream metropolitan dailies. He showed pictures of one of the most influential members of the black press, L. Alex Wilson, risking his life to tell the story. The photograph shows Wilson, a reporter and manager for the Memphis Tri-State Defender getting beaten by grinning white hooligans, some holding bricks, during the Little Rock Nine Crisis when nine black students tried to enroll at Central High School in 1957.

“I know this has some pertinence today,” he said, referring to the apprehension reporters have in a Trump administration. “Anyone who is my age cannot remember a time when they were not threatened on the streets. I must tell you that threats were real back then.”

Klibanoff noted that every time he got knocked down, Wilson would pick himself up,  crease his hat, put it back on his head and keep walking. Other reporters had run, but Wilson refused.

“He vowed as a kid that when he ran from the klan in Leesburg, Florida, that he would never run again so he doesn’t run this day,” Klibanoff said.

Wilson died a few years later, Klibanoff said, from the injuries he sustained covering the story.

During a slideshow, Klibanoff, who was the managing editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, juxtaposed iconic photos from the 1960s and the 21st Century. First, he showed the gruesome picture of U.S. contractors hanging from a bridge in Fallujah.

“I had to decide whether I was going to go with this picture on the frontpage of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. It’s so shocking,” he said. “We called this terrorism.”

Then he advanced the slide.

“So if that’s terrorism, he asked, “is this?”

The black and white image of two black corpses hanging from a tree appeared on the screen, with white people standing beneath. He used a red laser pointer to go over the white faces.

“Look at the faces there. Is that shame? No,” he said. “So if this is terrorism, a burning bus bombed in Karachi, Pakistan wasn’t this -- a Freedom Ride bus going through Anniston, Alabama?  So make no mistake we had terrorism in this country and if you were on the wrong side, your life was in danger every day.”

He had another lesson from the past for journalists. He showed one of the iconic pictures of two German shepherds attacking a young black man in Birmingham. It was the biggest story in the country. The New York Times ran three pictures on its frontpage, so did the Washington Post.

But, then Klibanoff put a slide of the frontpage from the local paper, the Birmingham Post. There is a picture of two white girls smiling and a headline about a local school aid bill. The afternoon paper, The Birmingham Post which Klibanoff delivered at the time as a paperboy, was no better. He said that later a room full of the pictures of the hoses and the beatings and the dogs taken by staff photographers was discovered. They were never published.

“You could read all the papers in Alabama back then and you wouldn’t find a picture of a dog except for the pet of the week,” he said. “This is a complete abdication of a journalist’s responsibility of the most important story in the country.”


We Regret to Inform You...

Nearly five decades after the killing of Hall, the Department of Justice reopened the case and conducted an investigation. On July 27, 2011 DOJ Attorney Cristina Gamondi submitted a Notice to Close File on the police killing of AC Hall. Even though the report was released nearly five decades after the fatal shooting it remains rife with redaction. Many of the names of the interested parties are labeled with some combination of Xs. For instance, in a section of the DOJ report that talks about officer Durden’s recollections in combination with other witnesses -- presumably the Hoppers as well as a shrimp boat captain nearby -- the use of Xs reaches an almost operatic level of absurdity:

“The FBI determined that subject Durden died on September 24, 2009.  Subject XXXX, who is still alive and XXX years old, was interviewed by the FBI in 2011.  Although XXXX could not remember many of the details of the incident, X gave an account consistent with his 1962 statement.  In particular, XXXX recalled that XXXX pointed the victim out as the person who had broken into their car and that the victim turned toward the officers, pulling an arm from behind his back.  In his 2011 interview, XXXX stated that the victim actually pulled a gun and that Durden yelled at XXXX that the victim was about to shoot the officers.”

Despite that many of the facts of the case have been in the public domain, both at the time of the shooting, and in the years since when it has become the subject of inquiry for cold case investigators, the DOJ in its official notice remains steadfast in covering up the names of the killers and the witnesses, whose report to the Macon Police Department of a “colored boy” stealing their gun set in motion the events of that October evening.

A reader needs to carefully wade through the redactions to reach the conclusion, which is that, then, as now, it is rare, extremely rare, to prosecute white cops when they shoot a black teenager.  Even though several generations separate the shooting of Hall and the DOJ’s decision to close the case on his killers, the language remains startlingly similar. Ultimately, the stated reasons for closing File NO. 144-19M-1756 are that the officers claimed they had a reasonable suspicion that Hall was reaching for a gun as he was running away from the  officers.

“Based on the foregoing, this matter lacks prosecutive merit and should be closed,” the report states.

When investigators conclude an investigation into one of the 126 cold case civil rights killings that are on its official list they send a letter to any surviving  family. They are impersonal and nearly identical in every death. This one read:

“We regret to inform you that we are unable to proceed further with a federal criminal investigation of this matter because the applicable five-year statute of limitations has expired and because, even if not barred by the statute of limitations, there is insufficient evidence to prove a violation of the relevant federal criminal civil rights statutes, beyond a reasonable doubt.”


‘The Vilest and Ugliest in Our Hearts and in Our Souls’

These days, there is a lot of talk about “draining the swamp” in Washington, D.C. It was a popular refrain at campaign rallies, an indication that then presidential nominee Trump would clear out the lobbyists, careerists and establishment elites. That phrase has been invoked as now President-elect Trump has put together his transition team. But in 1964 the federal government was in the business of actually draining swamps in Mississippi, or at least dredging them.

President Lyndon Johnson deployed hundreds of sailors to dredge every swamp and waterway in the state to look for the bodies of James Chaney, 21, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, who were working to get blacks registered to vote as part of the “Freedom Summer.” They had been missing for 44 days.

There was talk from the Governor at the time that the three young men, two white and one black, who had been arrested and then released to much fanfare, had slipped off to Cuba to drink cocktails with Fidel Castro. Johnson had his suspicions. Eventually they found a body. It was black. They thought that was Cheney. Shortly thereafter another body was found. Everyone assumed it would be white, since the other two missing men were white.

“It’s not,” Klibanoff said. “It’s another African-American. So suddenly there’s this, you can imagine, this national gasp. You mean you can dredge every body of water down here and find someone?”

The two 19-year-old men, Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, were college students who had been hitchhiking. Two Ku Klux Klansmen, James Ford Seale and Charles Marcus Edwards, saw the men along the highway, one wearing what we would know call a du-rag, and suspected them of being associated with some black nationalist organization. They had nothing to do with activism, but that did not matter to Seale and Edwards.

“They kidnap these two kids and they take them out to a refuge, a forest and they strap them to a tree, they take these long reeds, they strip them of their leaves and they beat these two guys senseless lashing them,” Klibanoff said.

One of the Klansmen, Edwards, had to leave for work. So they throw Dee and Moore in the trunk of their car and drove them down to the river.

“They they strap one to an engine block and one to some engine ties and throw them in the river where they drown,” he said.

The killers would not be tracked down until 41 years later when Thomas Moore, Charles Eddie Moore’s brother, and a Canadian filmmaker tracked them down and “cracked the case.”

That case motivated Alberto Gonzales, the US  Attorney General at the time, to start the Civil Rights-Era Cold Case Initiative. But the Department of Justice never made the cold cases a priority and never made it clear that there were funds available to local law enforcement agencies to investigate these old murders from the civil rights era.

“The FBI in my opinion did nothing after that,” Klibanoff said. “Their goal was just to close the cases to apprehend that there are no living perpetrators, and they were very quick to judge. They’re in the business of prosecuting. I as a teacher do care because we can continue to delve into these cases even if there are no living perpetrators.”

Adn that, he said, was the birth of the project at Emory.

He told the assembled crowd that it is important that if you are going to do this work you can’t fall prey to what he called “presentism.”

“You don’t ever want to be guilty of applying present day standards of what people were like in 1962 to today,” he said.

He added that today’s demagoguery is nothing new. He listed all the Southern governors who challenged the federal government and lost.

“It was pretty clear,” Klibanoff said. “Everyone was going to lose if you were going to stand up to the federal government. They were all demagogues. They all appealed to the most basest interests of people, the vilest and ugliest in our hearts and in our souls. And they all lost.”