Researchers from the University's Cold Case project are investigating unsolved Civil Rights era murders in Louisiana and southern Mississippi to bring closure to affected families, pursue justice and rewrite history before it’s too late.
Since the project began in 2010, around three dozen students have investigated cases from the 1960s in which African Americans died or disappeared at the hands of klansmen and other white supremacists who were often backed by local law enforcement.
“I think it was important for LSU to take this on because these deaths occurred in LSU’s backyard,” former University professor James Shelledy* said. “It has the resources to look into these things.”
These researchers are part of the Manship School of Mass Communication’s Statehouse Bureau, an experiential journalism program headed by former New York Times investigative reporter and University professor Chris Drew. The program allows students to cover Louisiana’s legislature for nearly 50 news outlets statewide. This semester, six students from that course are investigating the cold case, with help from two volunteers.
The project teaches students real-life journalism skills by making them meticulously analyze documents and have compelling interviews so families who suffered during the era can finally get answers.
Researchers have historically taken semi-annual trips to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to retrieve FBI documents requested through the Freedom of Information Act. Their plans to do so this semester were postponed due to the government shutdown, but Drew still plans to send two students to copy two files containing a combined 2,172 pages of documents.
These partially redacted documents include information about Robert Fuller, a former Klan leader who killed three black farmhands in the 1960s in northeastern Louisiana, and the White Knights, a faction of the KKK that emerged during the Civil Rights era.
While they wait to retrieve those files, researchers are sifting through FBI interview reports and other documents on the Deacons for Defense and Justice, an armed black resistance group that aimed to defend black communities from klansmen. A few chapters emerged in Louisiana, and one was in Bogalusa.
The Washington Parish town is a crucial part of another subject of the team’s research. Some students are investigating the murder of Oneal Moore, one of the parish’s first black deputies.
Information that researchers find on the case will be relayed to Stanley Nelson, who plans to write a book on the case. Nelson is the editor of the Concordia Sentinel, a newspaper published in Ferriday, La., and he has investigated cold cases for years. As an editor, he does not have time to travel to the National Archives to retrieve documents, so the work of the researchers helps him greatly.
Nelson explained that in most cases during the era, the FBI kept files, and when the cases were closed, the files were put away and sometimes became inaccessible. Students were able to retrieve some files for the first time since the 1960s, enabling them to discover who the FBI was investigating decades ago and connect it with evidence from their own research.
Some criticize the return to these cases, but Nelson defends the importance of doing so by asking critics to consider if their family members were victims of the crimes during the era.
He said that an unsolved murder in any community is horrible, especially a Civil Rights era murder that went unsolved because klansmen were involved with law enforcement and intimidated witnesses into silence.
Drew noted the value of revealing the names of witnesses who had the courage to speak out.
“Some people feel better when they see that even though the FBI didn’t crack the case, three local people actually stood up as witnesses and told them what they knew,” Drew said.
Drew’s predecessor, Shelledy, said that law enforcement and the FBI have been too consumed with other issues to revisit 50-year-old cases that would probably not lead to a conviction. The task falls almost entirely on the students and journalists like Nelson, and, as witnesses and perpetrators age, the window to conduct interviews is narrowing.
Luckily, the location of dozens of murders allows them to fulfill this duty.
One of Shelledy’s teams believed it discovered what happened to Joseph Edwards, a black man who disappeared in Vidalia in 1964. He is suspected to be the victim of foul play by klan-sympathizing law enforcement officers, according to an article on the project’s website. Shelledy said they interviewed witnesses and were able to draw a conclusion through circumstantial but clear evidence.
Andrea Gallo,* now an investigative reporter for The Advocate, was a cold case researcher under Shelledy in 2012 and 2013.
The primary case she worked on involved the murders allegedly committed by klansman Ernest Parker. He was accused of tying two black men to the motor block of his Jeep and throwing them in the Old River near Tallulah.
Reporting on the case taught Gallo how to condense thousands of pages she had read into a single story.
“It was really cool as a student just to go to the National Archives and to do that level of research that really showed how to be an investigative reporter,” Gallo said.
Gallo said it is incredibly tragic for a loved one to be brutally murdered and never get answers. The project allows students to piece together information to bring justice and closure to families.
Nelson stressed how important it is for families to know that someone cares and is working to get answers. Even if cases are not solved, researchers can give families information that the FBI did not.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” Nelson said. “It’s what we ought to do. It’s the moral thing to do.”
Nelson said this research may be the most important thing students ever do, and he believes they will always be glad they were involved with such essential work.
“Students sacrifice a lot of time for this, and they are motivated by doing what’s right,” Nelson said. “They’re led by their hearts.”
*Editor's Note: James Shelledy is a former director of the Office of Student Media. Andrea Gallo is a former employee of The Reveille.
**Editor’s Note: Alyssa Berry is the current Reveille Co-photo editor.