Their killers walk free Because murder has no statute of limitations, and political strength of black voters is growing, some unsolved killings of black men in the civil rights era are being revisited

December 20, 1998|By Stories by Stephanie Saul

Traveling along the back roads of the Deep South, a landscape rich in legend and history, one can still hear stories of black men meeting horrible deaths at the hands of white mobs, of men tossed from bridges, beaten with beanpoles or shattered by car bombs.

In scattered tiny towns, aging white men are living out their days shielded, even embraced, by their communities, despite suspicion and sometimes evidence that they committed these killings against blacks during the civil rights era.

Their presence, living freely and unpunished all these years, has magnified the grief of friends and relatives who mourn the black victims. It has heightened the anguish of justice denied. Until recently, these men have had little cause to fear a knock on the door, secure in the belief that the criminal justice system would never hold them accountable for their violent acts.

But now, spurred by grieving relatives and the growing political strength of black voters, some cases are being reviewed and some reopened. The South is slowly being made to confront its murderous past.

Over much of the past year, Newsday has been examining these long ago crimes, reviewing case files, inspecting records and interviewing relatives and friends of the victims and some of the alleged perpetrators, as well as FBI agents, local district attorneys and officials in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

Because there is no statute of limitations on murder, the cases are still subject to prosecution. But as cases are being reopened, many more lie dormant, not under investigation by local authorities or the federal government.

Asked why the government hadn't pursued the old cases over the years, Deval Patrick, former head of the Justice Department's civil rights division under President Clinton said: "I don't think there was any sort of policy or none that I know of. And I don't remember it being on my radar screen, at a minimum."

But family members of the victims never forgot, and in many of the cases that were reopened, they pushed authorities to act.

As the century draws to a close, it is difficult to imagine the extent of the brutality commonplace in the South three or four decades ago. It is painful for some to reconcile that the violence was tacitly or explicitly sanctioned by authorities.

"I heard as a kid growing up in Mississippi: 'It's always open season on black folks,'" said Vernon Dahmer Jr., the son of voting rights activist Vernon Dahmer, who was killed in a Ku Klux Klan firebombing at his home in 1966. "All of us grew up in that society and we knew."

"They said you'd get more time for killing a squirrel than for killing a black person," said Ellie Dahmer, Dahmer's widow.

The mastermind of Dahmer's killing was convicted this year. Another man, an executive with a major Mississippi chicken-processing corporation, faces trial next year in Dahmer's death.

Other white supremacists suspected of involvement in similar acts of violence have never been tried.

Some are defiant racists, like Ray McElveen of Bogalusa, La., who was arrested, then released for the murder of Oneal Moore, a deputy sheriff in Washington Parish, La.

Others are heavy with guilt, like Harold Crimm of Vicksburg, Miss., who faces trial in February on charges he threw farmhand Rainey Pool off a bridge in the Mississippi Delta in 1970. Crimm told investigators that for 28 years he had thought of Rainey Pool every day, according to the prosecutor. Nevertheless, Crimm has pleaded not guilty. While some victims were, like Medgar Evers and Dahmer, leaders in the civil rights struggle, others were ordinary citizens living workaday lives. Some took minor stands for equality of their people. Others violated some ill-defined taboos that white Southern society had established for black social behavior. Still others were caught in the cross-fire of civil upheaval.

Some of the victims

Among the victims are:

* Oneal Moore, killed in a barrage of gunfire on a dark Louisiana highway in 1965, a year after he had been named one of the area's first black deputy sheriffs. "I think I could die in peace if they'd actually punish somebody for what they did," said Creed Rogers, his black partner, who lost an eye in the assault. The Anti-Defamation League is pushing for the case to be reopened. McElveen remains a suspect.

* Wharlest Jackson, a rubber company worker and civil rights activist in Natchez, Miss., killed in 1967 in a truck bombing so severe the seat springs were pushed through his chest. "It would be healing for me just to know who did it," said his daughter, Denise Ford. The Natchez police department has reopened that case, but, possibly, too late. One of the primary suspects is dead.

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