Maceo Snipes, a black war veteran, was killed in 1946 when a carload of white men pulled up to the house where he was and shot him. Snipes’ niece, Lulu Kate Montfort, believes he was killed because he voted in the Georgia Democratic primary the day before. The unsolved murder is representative of crimes that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III have announced will be re-examined–all cases from the civil rights era that occurred before 1969.
Fifty-six FBI field offices have been tasked with opening cold case files to examine crimes still viable for prosecution. About 100 cases are under investigation. Specific details on the cases will not be released, but as many as 12 suspicious deaths have been stamped “high priority.” Among the cases are 75 murders the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights law firm, had looked into, independent of the FBI investigation. “These are cases we had researched,” says Penny Weaver of the SPLC. “When we found out the FBI was going to look at old civil rights cases, we turned over everything we had.”
The SPLC is hopeful that these cases will be solved and that they lead to the arrest of those who committed the deadly hate crimes. Criminal convictions may also provide the victims’ families with the opportunity to file wrongful death lawsuits. “Ultimately, we want anyone alive that was involved in these deaths brought to justice,” says Weaver.
The SPLC is in support of the proposed Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act–named after the black teen who was brutally murdered and mutilated in Mississippi in 1955 after he was accused of whistling at a white woman. The bill, which was reviewed but has not passed, would give the Justice Department and the FBI the power to create special investigative units dedicated to pursuing cold cases from the civil rights era. “We will do everything we can to close those cases and to close this dark chapter in our nation’s history,” Mueller said at a press conference in February.