The Goal: To Remember Each Jim Crow Killing, From The '30s On

Jan 3, 2015
Originally published on January 3, 2015 1:00 pm

The state of race relations in the United States has captivated the country for months. But a group of Northeastern University law students is looking to the past to a sometimes forgotten, violent part of American history.

The Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project is working to document every racially motivated killing in the American South between 1930 and 1970. So far, they've documented about 350 cases. Most of the crimes received little attention when they were committed, and often, even the family members of the victims don't know how their relatives died.

Margaret Burnham, the director of the project, spoke to Weekend Edition's Eric Westervelt to discuss how the project works and why it matters now.


Interview Highlights

On the project's race against the clock:

The project might seem unmanageable because the numbers might seem so large. But the cases from the 1940s and the early 1950s is really where we're focused at the moment. After the commencement of the civil rights movement, which people typically date at the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, the records about these cases grow more and more accurate. And so those are easily recoverable. And we'll do what we can do about the '30s.

But it's the 1940s where we now live, because in many cases, those who bore witness in one way or another are still alive, and their stories will be lost to history if we don't rescue them now. So that's the urgent piece of this.

On sharing the details of William Lockwood, a man slain by a police officer, with his family 60 years later:

We recovered as much detail about [Lockwood's death] as we could from Justice Department records and from the extensive record maintained at the time by the NAACP. Our student then gathered this material and took it to the Lockwood family just a few weeks ago, and they were, of course, elated to know the full facts of their relative's murder.

This is a case in which the family members want to know, but likely wouldn't go and hire a lawyer to get this information on their own. And so, in part, we're also just providing an important legal service to communities wouldn't have otherwise have access to this.

One case that sticks out:

In 1948, a young white man and a 56-year-old black man, co-workers at a base near Mobile [Alabama], got off of a bus on the same stop one night. And the black man asked the white fellow if he wanted to have a beer with him. The white guy said, "I don't drink with (blank)." And then he beat the other man to death on the street. The murderer was charged but he was promptly released and served no time in jail.

We found that man, the white murderer, living in Florida. We also found the family members of the victim, and many of them were still in Mobile. They weren't interested in reviving any criminal charges against the killer, but what they did want was acknowledgment that the legal system had failed them and their family member and some means of commemorating the life of their loved one, Rayfield Davis.

On the contemporary importance of the cases they've investigated:

What most troubles me in this research is that we're doing it so late. We call people and they say to us, you know, we've been waiting for this call for 50 years. But many times we don't reach them because they've passed on and their stories have died with them.

And so what's most compelling about this is how easy it is to lose pieces of our history and how important recovering this particular piece of it if we're to understand what's going on today. Not only should we not lose any of our history, but this is particularly important to understand the ways in which this past continues to resonate and recycle and reiterate itself through black experiences with the criminal justice system today.

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

The state of race relations in the U.S. today has captivated the country for months. But a group of Northeastern University law students is looking to the past, to a sometimes forgotten violent part of American history.

The Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project is working to document every racially-motivated killing in the American South between 1930 and 1970. So far, they've identified about 350 cases. Most of the crimes received no attention when they were committed, and often even the family members of the victims don't know how their relatives died. Professor Margaret Burnham is director of The Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

MARGARET BURNHAM: Thank you so much.

WESTERVELT: Explain for us what your group does and why there's such a sense of urgency in this work.

BURNHAM: What we do is we recapture the legal and social history of the racial murders occurring, as you say, between 1930 and 1970 in the states of the former Confederacy. Now the project might seem unmanageable because the numbers might seem so large, but the cases from the 1940s and the early 1950s is really where we're focused at the moment. After the commencement of the Civil Rights Movement, which people typically date at the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, the records about these cases grow more and more accurate. And so those are easily recoverable. And we'll do what we can do about the '30s, but it's the 1940s where we now live because in many cases, those who bore witness in one way or another are still alive, and their stories will be lost to history if we don't rescue them now. So that's the urgent piece of this.

WESTERVELT: Professor Burnham, there's a case in Tuskegee, Alabama, from 1943 that you investigated where a man was shot and killed by a local sheriff. Can you tell us about who that man was and what happened in that case?

BURNHAM: In the Tuskegee case, a man by the name of William Lockwood came to the side of a police car right near his farm where he was out picking cotton to ask the officer why he was holding his son, a veteran, in the back seat of the car. And the officer got angry because William Lockwood didn't address him as Sir. And he got out of the car, and he shot and killed William Lockwood. The son, Elijah Lockwood, and a second son were then arrested and taken to jail on completely trumped up charges and ended up spending seven years in Alabama prisons. Of course there was no investigation and no prosecution.

We recovered as much detail about this case as we could from Justice Department records and from the extensive record maintained at the time by the NAACP. Our student then gathered this material and took it to the Lockwood family just a few weeks ago. And they were of course elated to know the full facts about their relative's murder.

WESTERVELT: They'd been in the dark all these years about the facts?

BURNHAM: They had been. This is the case in which the family members want to know, but likely would not go out and hire a lawyer to get this information on their own. And so in part we're also just providing an important legal service to communities that wouldn't otherwise have access to this.

WESTERVELT: There are other cases you've identified in Mobile, Alabama, in the early '40s. Which of those stick out for you?

BURNHAM: Yes. We're working really closely with a history museum in Mobile and with family members to bring a number of these cases back home. In one of our cases in 1942, a soldier by the name of Henry Williams boarded a city bus to get back to his base. And the bus driver stopped to talk to someone. And as conversation began to drag on, and the soldier got nervous because he wanted to make his curfew. And he said - asked the driver to move on. And the driver was so enraged by this impertinence that he went to the back of the bus with a pistol and waved it in William's face and Williams apologized, but apparently not quickly enough.

He realized he couldn't placate the driver so the soldier ran for his life out of the back door of the bus. He stumbled down, his laundry spilling out of his suitcase, and the driver shot and killed him. The bus driver was never prosecuted. No one knows about the case of Henry Williams. His family members didn't know what had transpired, what had happened. The city of Mobile, African-American community in Mobile, don't know that case. So we're hoping to bring that back.

And in a second case in Mobile in 1948, a young, white man and a 56-year-old black man, coworkers at a base near Mobile, got off of a bus at the same stop on their way home one night. And the black man asked the white fellow if he wanted to have a beer with him. The white guy said I don't drink with blank. And then he beat the other man to death on the street.

The murderer was charged, but he was promptly released and served no time in jail. We found that man, the white murderer, living in Florida. We also found family members of the victim. And many of them still live in Mobile. And they weren't interested in reviving any criminal charges against the killer. But what they did want was acknowledgment that the legal system had failed them and their family member and some means of commemorating the life of their loved one, Raphael Davis.

WESTERVELT: Has doing this research changed how you think about race in America today?

BURNHAM: What most troubles me in this research is that we're doing it so late. We call people and they say to us, you know, we've been waiting for this call for 50 years. But many times we don't reach them because they've passed on, and their stories have died with them. And so what's most compelling about this is how easy it is to lose pieces of our history and how important recovering this particular piece of it is. If we're to understand what's going on today, not only should we not lose any of our history, but this is particularly important to understand the ways in which this past continues to resonate and recycle and reiterate itself through black experiences with the criminal justice system today.

WESTERVELT: Professor Margaret Burnham directs the Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University. Thank you for speaking with us.

BURNHAM: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.