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The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Journalists discuess Civil Rights era cold cases

Forty years later, reporters from many newspapers are banding together in a movement to prosecute the murderers who were wrongly acquitted during the Civil Rights era and continue to walk among us.  So far, 24 convictions have been made as reporters turn back the hands of time and reopen “cold cases” for reevaluation.

John Fleming with The Anniston Star, Jerry Mitchell with The Clarion Ledger, and Stanley Nelson with The Concordia Sentinel spoke to journalism students Thursday evening about the work involved in investigating a cold case.

“I don’t catch ’em, I just fry ’em,” Mitchell said. “It’s like working two jobs, but the reward that comes from helping the victims’ families find answers is worth it.”

The reporters explained that with cutbacks at newspapers, cold case work is tacked onto their daily reporting, meaning lots of late hours and overtime.

“These stories are important for the world to know, and they might never be told otherwise,” Nelson said. “Reconciliation for families and communities is the ultimate goal.”

Fleming told the story of a case he recently got to the bottom of involving Frank Morris, a black shoe shop owner in Ferriday, La., who was killed in 1964.

“Frank Morris’s shop was set on fire one night when he was inside it,” Fleming said. “He ran outside completely in flames. His head was on fire, and his skin was falling off. He suffered third-degree burns over 100 percent of his body. The emergency room nurse said he smelled of gasoline.”

Morris died in the hospital four days later.

“He was basically a good, hard-working man who sold shoes,” Fleming said. “He did not deserve to be set on fire like that.”

Fleming worked with dedication to solve this “unsolvable” mystery, writing 150 stories about the case, in spite of obstacles such as time constraints, incomplete FBI information and the implications that go with reopening a case involving the Ku Klux Klan.

“You cannot do this for the money or because someone tells you to,” Fleming said. “You have to do it because of something inside of you. I want to root out the people who commit these kinds of acts because they live among us, as far as we know.”

“In almost all of these cases that have been re-prosecuted to find justice, the press has done the initial investigation,” said Mitchell.

“I thought it was really interesting how the press is investigating these cases,” said Molly Gamble, a sophomore majoring in public relations. “It is important to know about history and learn from it so you don’t make the same mistakes. It is also important to find justice for those who were wronged.”

“The press in the South failed for the most part during the Civil Rights era,” Nelson said. “Many of these people have a yearning to tell their story, and you’d be surprised by how many people are willing to talk to you.”

However, getting interviews with the Klansmen and dealing with death threats can be a difficult aspect of reporting on cold cases.

“Obviously, being a white, Southern male helps me when I am interviewing Klansmen,” said Mitchell, who has put four behind bars. After he interviewed Byron de la Beckwith (the man charged with shooting Medgar Evers), Beckwith insisted on walking the reporter out to his car.

“If you write positive things about white Caucasian Christians, God will bless you,” Beckwith told him. “If you write negative things about white Caucasian Christians, God will punish you. If God does not punish you directly, several individuals will do it for him.”

“I wanted students to realize that race relations in the United States were not pretty before they were born,” said Chris Roberts, assistant professor of journalism and an organizer of the presentation. “Perpetrators are still walking the streets, and these guys are about justice. It was incredible to have these three MacArthur geniuses in the same room.”

These reporters believe uncovering the truth outweighs the negative feedback they sometimes receive.

“I think it’s the most rewarding thing I could do in my life because it makes such a difference,” Fleming said.

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