Much of my reporting has been about suffering on other continents: civil war, ethnic conflict, and the aftermath of genocide. But no matter how far away I go, I always return—if not in my person, then in my mind, in my writing, and in who I am—to the familiar, to old neighborhoods, the fields and woods of my childhood, to the people I have known. No matter where in the world I am, I write as a Southerner, and more specifically, as an Alabamian.
For the reader, that's irrelevant when reporting from, say, Uganda, but a certain amount of credibility comes into play when I turn my attention to the past wrongs of my people and explore the injustices that occurred in the South. A few years ago, I waded into murder cases from the civil rights era with the anxiety of a family member examining a forgotten crime committed by a cousin. I tasted then that "old fierce pull of blood" William Faulkner wrote about, the kind liable to make you sick at the stomach.
Like the time when Sheriff Jim Clark—the villain of Bloody Sunday, Selma, 1965, and perpetrator of violence against innocent schoolchildren and people who wanted to vote—in his nursing home in Elba, Alabama, feeble, in a wheelchair, on the edge of leaving this world, told me of a certain cousin of his in southern Alabama who happened to be a cousin of mine. My blood went cold and on my way back to the newsroom at The Anniston (Ala.) Star
, what ran through me was the same kind of feeling I had after seeing the result of man's inhumanity to man in Central Africa.
As violence erupted in Alabama in 1965 over voting rights, a black woman, Annie Lee Cooper, battles with Sheriff Jim Clark, center, as his hat falls to the ground. Photo by Horace Cort/The Associated Press.
Covering the aftermath of the wrongs carried out in my part of the country unearths ghastly stuff. I never liked listening to the likes of the now dead Sheriff Clark and so many others yammering on about race science, how it was the Communists' fault, how they would do it all over again because they were following orders from Governor George Wallace or someone else, and just so much garbage. It's enough to make me want to go outside and scream at the moon. It's like my newspaper's publisher, Brandy Ayers, a knight of Southern progressivism, says: "We get so tired of being disappointed by our own people."
Reconciling With Truth
Still, I am tugged into these dark corners. Might even say my colleagues and I go there because this is where the notion of the collective consciousness sneaks up on us, where we find ourselves in a German-like debate on societal responsibility and the liability of those close to us. How deep does blame go? It's a question we will doubtless keep asking if only because we didn't pause to ask it enough in the past.
I find myself thinking about covering the opening of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa back in the 1990's. In return for amnesty, an accused could agree to testify and tell the truth. In that way, some of the poison of the nation's past could be purged. It wasn't perfect, but it got at the truth or close to it. And as every church-going Southerner knows, that will set you free. People stood up, and they told harrowing stories that drove Archbishop Desmond Tutu and many others to tears. People tuned in, though some walked away, but in the end a lot of that awful business was pushed into the open, into the public domain. It was a good thing.
I've always wanted that kind of truth telling for my Alabama, and hoped, too, for a broader effort beyond the heroic ones already established to achieve it for the South. I think, believe and hope that through knowing, by accepting the truth of it all, we'd be better. In my dreaming times, I yearn for it. When I awaken, I realize that the way forward is through doing what we do best. We tell stories. We are journalists. And if we, as journalists, don't tell these forgotten stories, who will?
So for several years now, whenever I can carve out a day or a week or two, I pick up my notebook and go to some nooks and crannies of my native state, rooting around for whatever I can find about someone killed long ago whom nearly everyone has forgotten. I've looked into half a dozen of these cases in Alabama. Several dozen remain on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's list of civil rights era cold cases that has circulated for a few years, and as my colleagues and I have found, there are many more never reported to legal authorities. When I go to a little town and start asking around, people tell me about still other horrible events from the past.
What made my reporting about these numerous cases manageable was the establishment of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project
in 2008. Through the project, I got to know those who share my passion for pursuing these cases. Their encouragement and wisdom, born of shared experience, pushes me ahead at key times. This is old hat for Jerry Mitchell
at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. When I grow weary, he's there to say, "Keep going." When I just got tired of it all, Stanley Nelson
of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, Louisiana who is as dedicated to this work as anyone I know, simply told me not to give up. At times when I feel no one cares about these old cases, Ben Greenberg
, who has been blogging for years about these crimes, reminds me they do. And when I feel as though my reporting is hitting dead ends, David Ridgen
of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who earlier worked on a breakthrough case, shows me why I should not give up. If I start to believe what I'm doing doesn't matter, Hank Klibanoff
, who covered the civil rights movement, reminds me why it does.
Surrounded by them, I never feel alone.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders pay their respects to Jimmie Lee Jackson, a victim of racial violence, in 1965. His killer was sentenced in 2010. Photo by The Associated Press.
Still, I had a long and mostly dreadful time reporting on the former state trooper who killed 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson in February 1965. Everyone seemed to know that a trooper shot him, but the public didn't know the trooper's name until the Star ran my interview with James Bonard Fowler
in 2005. He admitted shooting Jackson, adding that it was in self-defense. A grand jury felt otherwise, charging him with murder. He eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced in 2010 to six months in jail.
This is one of those times when you might say journalism mattered. Even though history held that Jackson's death was the catalyst for the march from Selma to Montgomery, who killed him was not revealed until I started to ask questions. With most of the cases journalists now work on, history never took note of the victim's passing (or if it did the story of the death sometimes omitted even the victim's name), nor do their family members know how they died. Most of the cases we are writing about are obscure and have a snowball's chance in late August Alabama of coming to trial. Witnesses and suspects get old, memories fade, and people die.
For the families of the victims—and for us, as a society, I'd argue—and for obligations we have as journalists to seek public accountability, I search for cases few remember or care about.
Like I want to know what happened to 18-year-old Rogers Hamilton, shot execution style in Lowndes County in the heart of the Black Belt in October 1957. The file? Again, thin as a few sheets of paper. Two white men came to this boy's sharecropper shack in the middle of the night and took him away from his family—a cluster of half-grown children crammed into two rooms—up the dirt road, but not far enough that his momma couldn't see a man put a bullet in his forehead. No one cared, except his extended family, now scattered from Chicago to New York.
In time, detectives of the Alabama Bureau of Investigation cared, too, the same outfit that hadn't behaved so well back then. When I badgered them for the file on the killing—and wrote stories about Hamilton
, they got curious, then interested. The case remains open, though the reality is that this case will never be prosecuted. Family members insisted that a Lowndes County sheriff's deputy, a hopeless alcoholic who died in the 1980's, was present when Hamilton fell into the ditch with a bullet in his brain.
Though the family wants justice, even if it means getting the local district attorney to indict a dead deputy, what's equally important to them—what they talk about in phone calls to each other, what dominates the conversation at get-togethers—is the fact that the story of a long-dead boy in faraway Alabama has finally been told.
Knowing this reaffirms why I've spent these years reporting on forgotten cases.
John Fleming is editor at large for The Anniston (Ala.) Star and an editor at the Center for Sustainable Journalism. Before joining the Star, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa.