VOL. 133 | NO. 10 | Friday, January 12, 2018
Legislature Moving on Civil Rights Cold Cases
By Sam Stockard
Charlie Morris may be nearing 100 years of age, but he’s never given up on his quest for Tennessee to delve into decades-old civil rights crimes.
Morris, a Memphis-area resident whose brother was lynched and killed in 1939 for requesting a store receipt, is excited to see the state finally looking into cold cases after he spent years encouraging and pushing.
“The people who committed them must be punished and made to pay for it,” said Morris, who provided key testimony in 2017 that spurred the formation of a joint committee on civil rights cold cases.
Morris’ older brother, 21-year-old Jesse Lee Bond, was shot, tied up, castrated and thrown into the Hatchie River nearly 80 years ago because he asked for a receipt when he bought merchandise at Sam Wilson’s Arlington store. Back then, poor people and black sharecroppers never really knew how much they owed store owners and, as a result, struggled to get out of debt.
The official cause of Bond’s death was drowning, and the case was never investigated, a situation similar to other scenarios that played out across the Jim Crow South.
Recognizing the pain suffered by Morris and other survivors of civil rights crimes, state lawmakers are preparing to take legislative action this session, including recommending creation of a cold case commission with subpoena power as well as hiring more law enforcement officers and prosecutors to focus on unsolved cases of the 1950s and ’60s.
A joint legislative panel chaired by Rep. Johnnie Turner voted unanimously Monday, Jan. 8, a day before the Legislature opened its 2018 session, to accept a report compiled after months of testimony. The group will send the report to Senate and House speakers and forward it to an ad hoc committee that will write the legislation needed to make its summer work come to life.
“It shows somebody cares,” Turner said of the joint committee’s efforts. “There are so many people who have come to me and said, ‘This story has been passed down from generation to generation.’ Somebody finally recognizes there was wrong that was being done, and if those who committed those crimes are still alive, they should be prosecuted. And if they’re not, then we need to be able to do restorative justice.”
State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation to form the cold case committee, calls this one of the “hallmarks” of his legislative career because of the impact it could have on the lives of crime victims.
Turner, a Memphis Democrat, believes the Legislature, with the help of Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican, will come up with money this session to pay for the personnel required to make the panel’s recommendations work. Norris sponsored the Senate version of the legislation creating the study committee and also reworded its report to make it stronger. But he is going through the process of being appointed by the Trump administration to a U.S. District Court judgeship in Memphis and could leave the Legislature for that post in the middle of this session.
Nevertheless, Turner is prepared to forge ahead. Legislation is expected to emerge from the panel’s recommendations, including:
• Creation of a Tennessee Civil Rights Cold Case Commission made up of key state leaders such as the governor, Senate speaker and House speaker or their designees, the attorney general or designee, executive director of the Administrative Office of the Courts and deans of Tennessee’s six law schools.
• Providing the commission with staff, funding and subpoena and other powers to canvass the state for unsolved civil rights crimes, conduct independent initial investigations and refer them to state or federal prosecutors. In addition, the commission would provide restorative justice if crimes can’t be prosecuted and compile annual reports for the speakers of the House and Senate.
• Amending state law to permit access to investigative records of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation through a legislative task force or commission, allowing exceptions for records 40 years old and allowing for transfer of records 50 years old to the State Library & Archives.
• Providing recurring funds for a TBI special agent, analyst and administrative staff member concentrating on civil rights cold cases.
• Providing recurring funds for a special assistant district attorney within the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference to support work of the TBI and DAs statewide, with a mandate on investigating and prosecuting civil rights-era cold cases.
Even in cases when the person who perpetrated civil rights crimes is dead, sometimes it can be just as helpful for family members to understand the state recognizes a crime was committed and wants to rectify the situation, Turner said.
“It’s acknowledgement that the government said, ‘Yes, this lynching did take place. Yes, it was wrong. Yes, we have a right to try to right this wrong,’” she adds.
Sen. Ed Jackson, a Jackson Republican who served on the joint committee, said he believes important legislation will come out of the panel’s proposals this session.
“I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, and it was some tough times, and tough times for a lot of people. And I think this will help give us some closure and maybe some things where people say people do care and maybe we can move on with our life,” Jackson said.
After hearing summer testimony from people statewide, including families devastated by civil rights crimes, the panel found the state has the responsibility to defend its residents from civil and criminal violations of their civil rights and that each cold case presents the chance to “rectify a longstanding injustice.”
Unsolved civil rights crimes ranging from murder and kidnapping to bombings of homes and churches “exacted a severe toll” on victims, families, congregations and communities, the committee found.
The panel also recognized Tennessee has no mechanism for determining the total number of civil rights-era crimes across the state or reviewing and investigating them for prosecution or restorative justice.
Alex Little, a Nashville attorney who heads up the Tennessee Historical Justice Coalition, which provided critical information for the committee, expects to continue working with panel members as they try to pass legislation.
“The next generation of Tennesseans will be very, very proud of how our state looked at a very dark chapter and turned it into a shining example of how we can restore faith in justice in this state,” Little said.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.