Syracuse University Magazine

Conference addresses 'unfinished' business

Shelton Chappell shows the audience a photo of his mother, Johnnie Mae Chappell, after she was killed by Klansmen in Florida in 1964. 

Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, home pulpit of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., is known throughout the world as an historical focal point of the struggle for racial equality. The famed church served as an appropriate location in April for "Never Too Late For Justice," a conference hosted by the College of Law's Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI), bringing together family members of civil rights-era murder victims whose killings remain legally unresolved. Many of the cases were never seriously investigated or prosecuted, including some in which suspects freely admitted guilt. "Murder has to mean something," says Janis McDonald, the Bond, Schoeneck & King Distinguished Professor of Law. "We want to make clear to people, this is not finished business." 

McDonald and law professor Paula C. Johnson are co-founders of CCJI, which organizes faculty and students to review documents and interview witnesses in attempts to provoke interest among law enforcement officials in pursuing what are often dismissed as "cold" cases. "These cases are not ‘cold' for the families," Johnson says. "We and our students can do the work of investigators and fact finders, and try to determine theories to take to authorities."

The weekend conference brought together some 70 members of 30 families who lost loved ones in what Johnson described as "acts of race-based domestic terrorism." Meeting in private sessions, the families shared experiences, identified common needs and goals, and learned more about the work of CCJI. Some family members spoke with reporters. Willie Brewster Jr. was 7 years old in 1965 when his father was shot to death near Anniston, Alabama. "I'm ready and excited to meet those other people," Brewster told The Anniston Star. "I'm not scared to talk about anything, and I'm hoping that some kind of justice can come from this." Elizabeth Welch—whose uncle, Rogers Hamilton, was spirited away from the family's rural home and brutally murdered 53 years ago—expressed similar sentiments. "We're looking for answers, mostly," she said. "We know so little about what happened, and we're looking to the other families to see how they have dealt with it." 

The conference featured a panel discussion led by McDonald and Johnson, exploring the historical impact of the killings and the implications for society in failing to resolve them. A concert was offered by renowned gospel singer Mavis Staples, who performed at a CCJI event in Syracuse last winter. Speaking on behalf of the University, Chancellor Nancy Cantor said, "We are deeply honored to host this unprecedented gathering in this hallowed location for families for whom justice has been too long delayed." 

McDonald saw benefits from the conference for all involved. "The families were energized by the common understandings they discovered in their struggles for justice," she says. "I believe the SU law students, alums, administrators, and professors came away with a renewed determination to assist them. As one immediate result, seven law student interns will be working full time for us this summer in Natchez, Mississippi, and in Atlanta and Syracuse." Johnson believes the basic desires for accountability and justice expressed by family members at the CCJI Atlanta retreat reflect the wishes of many more families who lost loved ones to racial violence during that era. "These families deserve justice as a matter of right," she says. "Our job is to support them by using our skills and training to make our profession—and society—live up to the ideals of equal justice by correcting these lingering wrongs." —David Marc

church audience