Soon after I arrived at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in January 2008, I spoke with reporter John Fleming of The Anniston (Ala.) Star. He was looking for help investigating a cold murder case from the civil rights era. Within weeks I learned of other journalists in the South andelsewhere who were working on similar cases. Two of them, Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi and Canadian documentary filmmaker David Ridgen, had done acclaimed work that helped bring killers to justice and some small measure of peace to the families of the victims.
In the early spring of 2008 I traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to talk about collaboration and the funding of cold case reporting with Mitchell; Ridgen; Fleming; Stanley Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel, a weekly paper in Ferriday, Louisiana; and Aynsley Vogel of the Vancouver-based Paperny Films. Our unifying motivation was storytelling, justice and even reconciliation. I wanted to create a project of an ambitious sweep that would tell the untold stories of killers, victims and their families in ways that would tie together a shameful chapter in American history and link it in powerful arcs to today. What I didn’t know going in was how inspired I’d feel by hearing these journalists share fragments from their work that spoke to why telling these stories mattered to them—and should matter to all of us.
Nelson was born in Ferriday and raised in a neighboring parish, across the Mississippi River from Natchez. It is Deep South, as Nelson is Deep South. He delivered serious words in a heavy drawl with a measured resonant cadence. I respected and understood his role as the hard-working editor of a newspaper that was central to his community. We came from different worlds but shared the love of story and a core belief that journalists in our democracy have a responsibility to be a catalyst for justice and accountability.
In 2007 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) put out a list of about 100 unsolved civil rights era cold case killings, the oldest dating to 1946. Nelson was stunned to learn that a man named Frank Morris had been burned to death in Ferriday in 1964. “I was 9 years old [when Morris was killed] and I never knew about it,” he told me. After the Sentinel published his initial story about the case, people in Ferriday complained to the paper about dredging up the past. Let it lie, they said.
One day Nelson was in his office when a black man he had known for most of his life came to see him. He recounted the visit for us, telling us what he’d been told that day. The man said that his three sisters had drowned on the day before Thanksgiving in 1968. He was told that the girls had been fishing on a local pond when their boat capsized. In telling the story to Nelson, he let him know that it had been a cold rainy day, and his sisters had never been fishing before. Nor did they did know how to swim. All three girls were missing clothing.
Nelson was stunned. Though he had known this man for many years, until that day he did not know that the man had had sisters. “Then the man said, ‘Stanley, the killers are still walking among us.’ ”
As Nelson said this, a chill ran down my spine. His words clearly affected the others, too. By the time we left Jackson we had decided to act as a team to go after unsolved killings from decades ago that still reverberate through the South. Our resolve ushered in the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, coordinated by CIR and Paperny Films. But when I started (with the help of others) to raise funds for the project, foundation philanthropy was in retreat along with the global economy. From the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, we secured early organizational funding, and from the Open Society Institute we received funding to help build a website. The project also received developmental funding from the Corporation from Public Broadcasting and public television station WNET.
The potential collaboration we sought would have included WNET, NPR, the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University, MediaStorm, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University, as well as Howard University and other historically black colleges. We wanted a well-coordinated, multiplatform, long-term investigative project to tackle the FBI’s known cold cases and discover others. To direct our efforts, Hank Klibanoff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and coauthor of “The Race Beat,” came on as managing editor.
We had reporters and cases along with the will and skill to do something special. What we still don’t have is the funding for us to act on our ambition. A smaller, more limited version of the project survives. With the help of Klibanoff and others, including the Syracuse University project, Nelson has kept on the Morris case, as the other team members pursue cases when time and resources permit. CIR helps financially when it can, but the project’s outlays have not come close to compensating reporters for the time they’ve spent digging into these cases. In four years Nelson has written more than 150 stories about the Morris case; it’s my belief that his work has been a catalyst for the convening of a grand jury in Concordia Parish. Its work on the case is unfinished.
Frustration surfaces when I encounter an absence of interest from potential funders. Perhaps to them these cases happened then and lack relevance to their stated goals today. Then there is the issue of the time I can devote to this effort since my role in building and sustaining CIR is a relentless challenge. Yet the editor and reporter in me appreciate the value these stories hold and recognize the time to investigate them is closing. Knowledge of the past is crucial, yet family survivors are aging, memories are fading, and witnesses and suspects are dying. In many of these cold cases, FBI files have not been made public and their information would doubtless bring us closer to the truth of what happened.
Nelson’s work speaks for itself. With a newsroom staff of three, his weekly community newspaper reaches 5,000 readers. This spring his stories about the Morris case made him a Pulitzer finalist. His reporting is a beacon of what’s possible. As Klibanoff reminds us: “Every unsolved Southern civil rights era murder that has been opened or reopened and prosecuted or reprosecuted in the last 20 years has been because of a journalist.”
And Nelson has not forgotten the man’s three sisters.
Robert J. Rosenthal is the executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and was one of the organizers of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, which is based at CIR. He was editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle before joining CIR in 2008.