What Investigations of Cold Cases from the Civil Rights Era Can Offer
June 17, 2021
Most Americans know the story of Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was murdered after allegedly whistling at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955. But what about Roman Ducksworth? Alberta O. Jones?
The killings of Ducksworth and Jones are just two of the more than 150 race-related cold cases dating back to the civil rights era that have been investigated by the federal government under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act, which was signed into law in 2008.
“We thought this was an opportunity to investigate the investigation and look at this more as a whole—versus one case in a silo here, another case in a silo there—and to see what the overlap was and how cases were approached by the federal government,” explains James Edwards, a reporter and host of Un(re)solved, a new podcast from Frontline that looks at the Till Act and some of the stories investigated under it. “The intent [of the Act] is to deliver accountability when possible, and truth.”
But, as Edwards says in the podcast, “Truth doesn’t always deliver justice, and justice isn’t always delivered with the truth”—especially when cases are decades old. For instance, even though Till’s murderers were known, they were acquitted and never faced consequences in their initial trial; no further charges were brought when the case was reopened in 2004.
The uncle of Edwards’ grandmother was killed and hung from a tree in Mississippi while his grandmother was a child visiting from Chicago, just like Emmett Till. She never returned to Mississippi. Edwards still doesn’t know much about the killing, or even the uncle—but it’s too late for him to uncover more by talking to his grandmother.
Even in such a well-known case as Till’s—not to mention less familiar stories like that of Edwards’ relative—not all the details are known, and some of the history is at danger of being forgotten. Edwards grew up in Chatham on Chicago’s South Side. “I was surrounded by this history… but if I went by Emmett Till’s house before somebody told me that’s where he lived, I wouldn’t have known,” he says. Till’s house in Woodlawn received landmark status earlier this year. “We’re not often taught that history in school. You have to find it on your own or later as you get older.”
The Un(re)solved podcast is just one part of a multiplatform project aiming to reveal and share some of that history. It includes an interactive website, a documentary premiering this fall, and a touring augmented-reality installation, which will eventually come to the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago.
That multimedia approach enriched each aspect of the project, Edwards and Max Green, a producer of the podcast, say. “There are interviews and parts of the story that we wouldn’t have if producers from other aspects of the project hadn’t been tracking it down,” Green says.
Green and Edwards both previously worked at WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station, where Edwards produced a podcast series called 16 Shots about the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke.
“Chicago is a city that doesn’t have any shortage of different types of crime and police shootings,” says Green. “One of the things that is not necessarily surprising but is tragic and compelling is seeing some of these cases from the civil rights era, decades and decades ago. If you were to just remove the date or identifying details, you might expect it to be a case that happened today. In a way, that speaks to how little progress is made.”
One goal of Un(re)solved is to examine how much progress has been made by the federal government in the Till Act cases. “We don’t often necessarily see a lot of reporting that follows up on what happens to [government initiatives] and where they go,” says Green. “Enough time has gone by to ask, ‘What has the result of this been?’ We should be able to look at this thing and ask some hard questions: what has been done? What hasn’t been done? What can be done? The answers to those questions tie into a lot of questions that are coming up in America today about race and policing and crime.”
“There’s a through line [from] these cases to what we see today, with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and other cases of policing even just in the past year,” says Edwards. “Oftentimes some people will say, ‘It’s in the past, let’s just move on,’ but if we’re not really looking back and reckoning with this history, than how are we able to look at what’s going on today and move forward? Just sweeping it under the rug doesn’t do that. I think a full accountability into these stories and these cases helps get us in that direction.
“These are stories that deserve to be known along with the Michael Browns and George Floyds and Breonna Taylors,” Edwards continues. “They come before those. That history is an important part of this country.”