Recent tragedies have revealed the enduring nature of racial violence in the U.S. and the call for justice to account for the families’ losses. The Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) at Syracuse University knows about the imperative to answer that call. The CCJI works with many families to uncover old evidence of racially-motivated killings from the civil rights era and advocate with them for justice. We must address an alarming trend: William Allen, James Anderson, Bobby Clark, Dannaer Fields, Trayvon Martin; sons, parents, daughters. This is not a list of old cases but rather a group of blacks who, in less than one year, have all been killed and where, to some degree, race has played a factor in their brutal deaths.
The primary suspect in the killing of Trayvon Martin is finally facing criminal homicide charges after a special prosecutor held a press conference late Wednesday. The killing of Trayvon Martin has people questioning why the color of your skin and your choice of clothing make you a suspect. Martin’s death galvanized communities who were outraged that his alleged killer, George Zimmerman, remained free having never even been arrested and only briefly questioned by police while Trayvon’s family mourned; their child killed because he looked suspicious. The incident exposed a harsh reality, long understood by black families, to the rest of the country.
Over the Easter weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Jacob England and Alvin Watts got into a pickup truck and shot five blacks, three of whom died. Police will not call it a hate crime as it’s too early in the investigation to say with certainty but we do know England, 19, expressed anger and used overt racial slurs on his Facebook page, blaming a black man for his father’s death. It’s an irrational act of revenge on innocent people simply because the color of their skin.
Then there is the case of 49 year-old James Anderson, a black man who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Beaten and then run over by a truck simply because a group of white teenagers decided they wanted to find a black man to attack. The horrific assault in Jackson, Mississippi took Anderson’s life and was far too reminiscent of the racial violence that many associate with the civil rights struggle in that state.
There is an unbroken thread of racial violence that is palpable for the world to see and it cannot continue. In 1955, 14 year-old Emmett Till went to a store to buy candy; in 2012, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin went to the store to buy candy and iced tea. Nearly 60 years later and the outcome for both teens was the same. The past is not the past and it will continue to haunt us until we come together as a nation and do something about it. The unsolved race related murders of the past need to be addressed if we are to break the cycle of hatred and violence.
We believe ending these senseless killings begins with government officials who step forward and do the right thing. When President Bush signed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act into law in November of 2008 we had hoped the FBI would begin by conducting a thorough investigation to determine how many deaths actually occurred during this reign of lawlessness. Four years later we still do not have an accurate accounting. The CCJI insists vigilant attention needs to be given to these long unresolved racially motivated killings if we are to ever move forward, achieve true racial justice, and put an end to senseless racial killings in this country.
Janis L. McDonald and Paula C. Johnson, Professors of Law and Co-Directors, Syracuse University College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative