Healing Requires Truth
Mother Jones|November/December 2021
A modern civil rights project seeks to reexamine hundreds of Jim Crow–era murders, and help families move forward.
By Samantha Michaels

JOYCE FAYE NELSON-CROCKETT was 13 years old in 1955, dancing to a jukebox in the Hughes Cafe on a Saturday night in East Texas with her sister and her 16-year-old cousin, John Earl Reese. The boy had come home to the nearby town of Mayflower earlier that day after a summer away picking cotton, and he held Nelson-Crockett's hand as he spun her around the room. All of a sudden, a sharp crack interrupted the music. Nelson-Crockett thought it was fireworks at first, until she heard a thud on the floor and noticed Reese lying there. “I looked and saw his brain coming out of his head, she later told a reporter. She felt warm liquid running down her arm and saw that she'd been struck, too, in her wrist. Her 15-year-old sister also took a bullet in the shoulder. Nelson-Crockett later learned that two white men shot through the cafe windows from their car because they were angry that local politicians had agreed to spend money on a school for Black kids.

Reese died from his wounds. But the gunmen never spent a day in prison. “I felt terrible then. Still do,” Nelson-Crockett told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1989. “I guess I will until I’m dead.” She’d been close with her cousin, who had lived down the street from her and walked with her to catch the bus, often making her laugh when she was having a bad day. The county government didn’t seem to care about the way his life had been cut short: Its records listed Reese’s death as an accident, despite plenty of evidence, including the killers’ confessions, that he’d died in a racist murder.

In the decades following the shooting, Nelson-Crockett didn’t talk much about Reese to relatives. The family lost all its photos of him during fires that destroyed her house and her grandmother’s house. By the time she reached middle age, she worried that if she spoke about his murder, her granddaughter, whom she was raising, might look at their neighbors differently or feel unsafe at school; some of the shooters’ relatives likely still lived in the area. So Nelson-Crockett kept the memories buried and tried to stay busy farming her land. “I don’t ever understand what could be done,” she told the Longview News-Journal in 2009, when she was in her late 60s. “Nothing you do will bring him back.”

That year, Nelson-Crockett got a phone call that would change the course of her family’s story. On the other end of the line, a law student in Massachusetts named Kaylie Simon claimed to have new information about the shooting and asked whether Nelson-Crockett would be open to a meeting. Nelson-Crockett was surprised by the question, and a little anxious. For decades, she’d carefully averted her eyes whenever she drove near the pine tree–filled lot where the Hughes Cafe once stood. But she also felt relieved to hear from someone who cared about a part of her life that few white people had taken seriously.

Simon was investigating Reese’s death as part of Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. Its researchers examine racialized killings between 1930 and 1970, during the Jim Crow era and its immediate aftermath. They dig up new information about unsolved murders, push officials to set the record straight, and ask surviving family members what they need to heal.

The project, launched in 2007, is the brainchild of Northeastern professor Margaret Burnham, an attorney, former judge, and lifelong civil rights activist. “I became interested in learning how many cases were incomplete, in the sense that no judicial proceedings ever addressed the harms that had befallen these people and the trauma experienced by their families,” she told me. It bothered her that so many of these stories had not been recorded.

For more than a year, the country has been gripped by a racial reckoning caused by the high-profile killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black men and women. The reckoning has fueled a public desire to reexamine murders that happened decades ago and still haunt surviving families, some of whom have struggled to recover because no one in power ever acknowledged their pain. Today, the official records of these older killings are often inaccurate. If they aren’t corrected soon, the true stories may never come out; many witnesses to the crimes of the Jim Crow era are aging and dying.

Before these memories fade, Burnham’s law and journalism students are racing to fill in details about racially motivated murders that were never properly investigated. They sometimes spend years looking into a single case, with help from Burnham, two other professors, a couple of attorneys, an archivist, and a historian. It’s like “legal archaeology,” Burnham says. The students read old newspapers, travel to Southern towns to obtain court transcripts, and speak with surviving families. “It’s really not enough to say, ‘Those were horrible days,’ and let them pass,” Burnham told the Northeastern Law magazine in 2010. “The details matter. These stories are important, and to the extent these people are still around, their stories deserve to be told.”

Prosecuting these murders often isn’t possible because so much time has passed and many perpetrators have long since died. But there are other ways to make amends: In some instances, Burnham and the students have compelled officials to apologize for the lack of accountability and correct falsehoods in records. Her team focuses on restorative justice, a model of responding to violence that asks survivors how they were harmed and what they need to recover. Burnham’s project is “part of a national reckoning that is underway,” says Geoff Ward, a professor of African American history at Washington University in St. Louis. In June, President Biden nominated Burnham to serve on the newly formed Civil Rights Cold Case Review Board, a federal panel tasked with improving public access to records about unsolved murders of Black people during the civil rights era.

Uncovering this buried history, Burnham hopes, could also help ease the kind of intergenerational trauma that silence can mask, trauma that can seep through entire communities. Like Nelson-Crockett, many survivors have lived for years with secrets about what their families endured. When aging witnesses share their stories with relatives, it can unite them; “it becomes part of the book of sorrow of the family,” Burnham says. Correcting records can help people feel heard. And situating their experience in the broader framework of American history, including by connecting survivors with other survivors, can allow them to feel less alone and empower them to become agents of social justice.

“It’s absolutely vital work,” says Kidada Williams, an associate professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who studies racist violence. For a long time, Williams says, historians who investigated lynchings “were looking at everything except the people directly impacted.” While other scholars explored what these killings reflected about the press, the legal system, white people, and Black activists, Burnham’s project is one of the largest of its kind to focus on the families.

Sharing these stories will be crucial, adds Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, a professor emeritus of African American history at Pennsylvania State University, if the nation is ever going to truly reckon with its history of racism. To address the harms Black Americans have suffered, we must first document and understand them. As Burnham puts it, “Healing requires truth.”

NOBODY KNOWS how many Black people were killed in racist attacks during the Jim Crow era, which began in the late 1800s and lasted until the mid-1960s. While some civil rights martyrs are widely remembered—like 14-year-old Emmett Till from Chicago, who was abducted while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955, or the four girls who died when white supremacists bombed the 16 th Street Baptist Church in Alabama in 1963—these deaths are only the tip of an iceberg whose full extent may never be accounted for. Many killings were never recorded, and when they were, government officials often condoned the violence or tried to hide what happened.

“There’s this vast, invisible universe of unknown victims who were murdered far from a reporter’s pen, or who the police never found out about or decided not to record for some reason,” says Jay Driskell, a historian who is helping Burnham’s students investigate these killings. Even with limited records, it’s clear the death toll was enormous. The Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, a legal nonprofit, has documented the lynchings of at least 4,000 Black people in 12 states in the South between 1877 and 1950.

As she works to shed light on these cases, Burnham is often reluctant to tell her own story, even when discussing her life’s work. “I really don’t want this to be about me,” she told me. But her past merits some mention, given her own ties to the struggles of the Jim Crow era. She was born in Birmingham in 1944. Both her parents were passionate activists for racial equality. Her father, Louis Everett Burnham, helped organize voter registration campaigns in the 1940s and was once arrested for dining with a white couple in a Black-only restaurant. The city’s police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, a Klan supporter who later became notorious for turning dogs on Black children, threatened to lock him up for his work leading the Southern Negro Youth Congress.

When Burnham was a young girl, her mother was friends with another snyc member, a schoolteacher named Sallye Bell Davis—whose daughter, Angela Davis, became Burnham’s lifelong friend. Burnham went to the University of Pennsylvania for law school, while Davis became a political activist, scholar, and author widely known for her work on prison abolition. When the police arrested Davis in 1970 in connection with an armed takeover of a California courthouse, Burnham was the first lawyer to represent her in New York. “She was the only attorney who remained with me from the moment of my arrest until the moment of my acquittal,” Davis recalled later.

Burnham started her legal career with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and in 1977 she became the first Black woman to serve as a judge in Massachusetts when she was appointed by Gov. Michael Dukakis. In 1993, South African President Nelson Mandela asked her to join a precursor to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated alleged human rights violations in his country under apartheid.

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