Center helps FBI with list of potential victims of racial violence

Published 6:32 pm Tuesday, February 27, 2007

George Love was killed in a 1958 Mississippi Delta gun battle with police who believed he was involved in a murder — one year later he was cleared of the allegation.

Jimmie Lee Griffin was killed in a hit-and-run accident in 1965. A coroner’s report showed the Sturgis resident was run over at least twice.

Hubert Orsby’s body was found in the Black River near Canton. He wore a shirt with “CORE,” the acronym for the Congress of Racial Equality, on it.

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Their deaths are among 74 in 11 states the Southern Poverty Law Center says could be racially motivated killings of black men and women between 1952 and 1968.

The center, which reports on hate crimes, has forwarded the list to the FBI and the Justice Department is expected to hold a press conference Tuesday to talk about a new database of old civil rights era cases that now could be investigated.

Center officials believe the list can be helpful in future investigations.

“In each case there was significant evidence that the death may have been a racial murder,” said Mark Potok, director of the center’s Intelligence Project.

Researchers at the Montgomery, Ala.-based center can’t prove the people on their list, which includes 32 Mississippi cases, were killed because of their race, but they believe each is worth investigation.

Researchers developed the list in the late 1980s while identifying 40 victims of racially motivated killings whose names were etched in a memorial. Those names were also included in the book, “Free at Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle.”

The center hopes the FBI can help add names that rightfully belong on the memorial.

“We did a lot of research on these names and we’re very hopeful that this information will be helpful to the FBI and particularly that it will be helpful to the families of those who were murdered.”

In addition to potential Mississippi victims, the list includes deaths in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and New York.

The list covers an era of extreme tension and violence across the South as federal authorities tried to force recalcitrant segregationists to integrate schools under the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., ruling in 1954.

Violence against blacks and the whites who hoped to help better their lives spiked, peaking during the so-called Civil Rights summer of 1964.

“Before 1954 there was somewhat of a thaw” in race relations in Mississippi, said DePauw University historian John Dittmer, whose book, “Local People,” chronicles the time.

“You had a more enlightened Legislature … and more blacks registering to vote in some places. There were even black police in one or two cities patrolling black areas. But the Brown decision changed all that.”

Many of the people identified by the center allegedly died at the hands of law enforcement officers. If charged, whites were often exonerated by sympathetic juries.

The center’s researchers wrote this of Woodrow Wilson Daniels’ 1958 killing in Water Valley: “Sheriff Buster Treloar, identified by four witnesses as the man who beat Daniels to death in a prison, was freed after 23 minutes of deliberation by an all-white jury. “By God,” Treloar said after the trial, “now I can get back to rounding up bootleggers and damn niggers.”

Many things have changed about Mississippi in the decades that have passed since that era of violence, including a large number of black elected officials. However, Sheriff Reginald L. Jackson of Wilkinson County, where one of the victims on the list was killed, said times in his county of 11,000 people have changed little in 40 years.

“Rich, poor, black or white or other race, it doesn’t make any difference in my opinion,” said the 49-year-old Jackson, who is among a handful of black sheriffs in Mississippi. “But yet we still have some segregation problems and things have not changed a whole lot.

“Within Wilkinson County as a whole, you can see we’re still operating pretty much under the old standard.”