Syracuse University Magazine

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The CCJI summer internship group meets with Angela Robinson '78 (left) and Christine King Farris (wearing hat), Martin Luther King Jr.'s older sister,  at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Photo by John Glenn for J Glenn Photography



Justice Seekers

Imagine the power of a packed-to-the-rafters Sunday service at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, just across the street from where Martin Luther King Jr. first preached. And imagine that exuberance being directed at you as the congregation rises in a standing ovation in your honor. That was the unforgettable experience of the student interns participating in the College of Law’s Cold Case Justice Initiative’s Five Cities Project last summer—one of many significance-saturated moments that deepened their commitment to investigating racially motivated civil rights-era murders in the South. “I was already feeling this great sense of responsibility that grew stronger the more I learned,” says University of Mississippi student LaChiquita McCray, one of 15 students from SU and other law schools selected for the project. “When the audience got up and clapped for us, I felt like I was somebody they really believed can change the world. It was wonderful.”

Changing the world is quite literally the goal behind the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI), an interdisciplinary project that engages law faculty and students in seeking justice on behalf of victims and their families. Founded in 2007 by law professors Paula Johnson and Janis McDonald, the initiative conducts investigations on unresolved cases, sponsors public forums, and serves as a clearinghouse for sharing information on active cases. Recent highlights include partnering with the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference to draft a resolution demanding full implementation of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, and hosting a conference at SU commemorating the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement featuring civil rights icons Diane Nash and the Reverend C.T. Vivian. “We started out responding to particular families who asked for our help in investigating and advocating for them with the justice department and the FBI, and that work has grown tremendously,” McDonald says. “We’ve also become aware that nobody has ever fully accounted for all the people who died or disappeared during that time period. And that has become part of our mission—to insist that happen.”

Thanks, in large part, to the support of SU alumni, the Five Cities Project placed students in Jacksonville, Florida; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi; Atlanta; and Nashville. They spent weeks studying databases and news articles in the search for information, uncovering some 60 new cases by summer’s end. Their work expands on previous CCJI efforts that resulted in turning over 196 names of potential victims of civil rights-era killings to the U.S. Department of Justice. “The objective has never been solely prosecutions,” Johnson says. “It has also been about correcting the record. These may be cold cases or old cases, but to the extent that they are not resolved, that no one has been held accountable, and that the families and the communities and the public don’t know who perpetrated these offenses, they are ongoing harms. And the wounds are still open.”

Contributing to the healing of those wounds is life-changing for SU law students. Jillian DaSilva L’15 learned about the CCJI when a victim’s family member spoke at the College of Law. “I’m a person who is very sensitive to violence, and it really touched me,” she says. “Being a part of this has definitely enriched my experience as a law student, and is something I can be involved with throughout my legal career.” Mark O’Brien L’14 echoes her appreciation. “This was a chance to learn by getting hands-on experience—by actually working with families,” he says. “It was a chance to learn by doing research that will help someone’s life, give them answers, and provide them justice.”     —Amy Speach



CCJI Conference