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Reflections on Looking Back, Moving Forward: 50th Anniversary Conference on the Civil Rights Movement 1964-2014

By Imagining America | May 02, 2014

By Paula Johnson, Professor of Law, Syracuse University

Note: This post offers reflections on the Looking Back, Moving Forward conference, held at Syracuse University, March 21-23, 2014.

On Sunday, March 23, 2014, a candlelight vigil was held for Mrs. Johnnie Mae Chappell in Jacksonville, Florida, as well as in Syracuse and other areas across Upstate New York.  Fifty years ago, on March 23, 1964, Mrs. Chappell was killed when four White men carried out their intention to “kill a N—–.”  Mrs. Chappell was on her way home from work when she realized that she had dropped her wallet on the side of the road.  Four men drove by as she stopped to retrieve her wallet, and she was killed in a drive-by shooting.  Mrs. Chappell was an African American mother of ten children.  She had been slightly delayed on her way home to purchase a treat for her infant son, Shelton Chappell.  Four men were charged with first degree murder – J.W. Rich, Wayne Chessman, Elmer Kato, and James Davis.  However, J.W. Rich was the only one of the four who would stand trial for her death.  He ultimately was convicted of the lowest level of manslaughter and received a drastically reduced sentence.  Inexplicably, charges against the other three men were dropped for “insufficient evidence.”

In the late evening of December 10, 1964, Frank Morris was startled by the sound of breaking glass in his shoe repair shop in the small Mississippi River Bank town of Ferriday, Louisiana.  Mr. Morris, his grandson, and another young worker lived in the back of the shoe shop.  As Mr. Morris went to investigate the noise, he first ensured that his grandson and assistant were safely outside the back door.  Upon returning to the front of the store, Mr. Morris saw two White men pour a flammable liquid around the shop and light a match.  The store erupted in flames immediately and one of the men pointed a shotgun at Mr. Morris, preventing his escape.  He ran through the burning building to the back door, his body covered in flames.  Two police officers who drove by his shop at the time of the blaze took him to the hospital.  Four days later, with third degree burns over ninety percent of his body, Frank Morris succumbed to his injuries.

Frank Morris was one of the few African American business persons in the Ferriday area.  He was well-respected and well-liked by Black and White members of the community.  He had mentored a number of young Black men and had provided their first jobs. Despite evidence of strong Klan activity in the area, including suspects with Klan affiliation, no one has been held accountable for his murder.  In February 2014, the Cold C old Case Unit within the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice officially closed Frank Morris’s case after convening and extending a Louisiana State grand jury three times.  The Department stated that the proceedings did not yield a definitive suspect.

Diane Nash leads protestors in song in 1961. (Photo: The Tennessean/CCJI)

Prior to last month, few people in Upstate New York or elsewhere knew about the lives and legacies of Johnnie Mae Chappell, or Frank Morris, or the countless others who were killed as a result of racist violence during the 1960s civil rights era.  The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Era Crimes Act of 2007 mandates that the Department of Justice fully investigate and resolve these cases, yet few such cases have been brought to justice.  For this reason, CCJI’s work to further investigations and highlight the untold stories of the victims remains imperative.  Thus, their stories were highlighted during a conference commemorating the civil rights movement and the heralded and unheralded martyrs of the era.  The Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI), at Syracuse University College of Law, and co-sponsoring departments, organizations, and institutions, including Imagining America, presented Looking Back, Moving Forward, a conference to commemorate 50 years of Civil Rights Movement activism and the continuing demand for equality and racial justice.

The Cold Case Justice Initiative was developed in 2007 to reinvestigate unsolved racially-motivated murders that were committed during the Civil Rights Era.  Professors Paula C. Johnson and Janis L. McDonald are the co-directors.  After an initial request for assistance from the family of Frank Morris, CCJI co-directors and law students responded to subsequent requests for assistance from other victims’ family members.  CCJI currently pursues numerous cases for potential reopening for prosecution by state or federal authorities.  In addition to investigations and advocacy, CCJI collaborates with diverse communities to present programs on the importance of education, social activism, and legal and social justice.  The conference, Looking Back, Moving Forward focused on the civil rights era broadly, with particular focus on 1964.  Major events that occurred during 1964 include Freedom Summer, the murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, launching of the War on Poverty, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize.  It also includes the murders of Johnnie Mae Chappell and Frank Morris.

Family members of Mrs. Chappell and Mr. Morris attended the conference.  Shelton Chappell, Mrs. Chappell’s youngest son, spoke about his family’s continuing demand for justice for his mother.  Likewise, Darlene Morris-Newvill, great-granddaughter of Frank Morris, discussed her family’s ongoing insistence on answers and justice for her great-grandfather’s death. During the Martyrs’ Roll Call on the first day of the conference, Mrs. Chappell, Mr. Morris, and other victims of civil rights era racial violence who were killed in 1964, plus civil rights activists who passed away in 2014, were remembered in an uplifting ceremony that included family recollections, interfaith prayers, music and dance.

Diane Nash and the Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian take part in the “Look Back, Moving Forward” Conference. (Photo: CCJI)

Looking Back, Moving Forward focused on the nonviolent activism of the civil rights era, and included several iconic figures from the movement, including Rev. C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Dorothy Gilliam.  The conference also emphasized the links from earlier civil rights activism to current civil rights and human rights activism.  These links were exemplified by Dr. Vivian and Ms. Nash’s “Workshop on Nonviolence,” which detailed the philosophy, strategy and discipline of the movement, as well as the “Activists Roundtable,” which was comprised of intergenerational, multi-movement activists from the 1960s civil rights movement, present student of color movements, LGBT rights, gender-based border violence, international human rights, peace and anti-war movements, immigration, and disability rights.  Roundtable participants discussed the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the ways in which social justice movements influence and support each other.  The intergenerational bridge was also highlighted by the performance of Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the Freedom Singers and the Black Women’s a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and her daughter Toshi Reagon, at the awards dinner which culminated the conference.

The Civil Rights Era was one of the most transformative periods in U.S. history.  Through mass movement, mostly non-violent protest, the era produced landmark legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  The era also opened up a new dialogue on race and changed forever the ways in which African Americans and other marginalized groups demanded equality and justice.  For all its transformative effects, however, the Civil Rights Era remains one of the least studied and least understood periods in American history.  It is not routinely or comprehensively taught in secondary schools or colleges and universities.  Looking Back, Moving Forward sought to rectify this omission to some degree.  The conference succeeded in bringing greater awareness about the magnitude of racial violence in the era, the large number of unsolved racially-motivated civil rights era cases, and the profundity of the era to campus and the at-large communities.  It was a multi-dimensional, collaborative effort between scholars, activists, and artists that engaged people across social movements, academic disciplines, generations and communities.

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The activists roundtable, moderated by IA’s Tim Eatman. (Photo: CCJI)

With its focus on non-violent activism, the varied perspectives on activism during the civil rights era were not well-represented at this event.   The nuances and complexities of the entire movement, era, and its better and lesser-known figures must be more fully explored in additional programs, research, critique, and dialogue.  This would include, for instance, philosophical and strategic differences to non-violence.  A recent biography about Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Touré, who ultimately left for Guinea, West Africa after abandoning non-violence as a nonviable route to racial justice and equality in the United States.  Further, issues regarding sexism and the role of women in the movement deserve greater treatment.  Recent books written by women in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), as well as the Black Panthers begin to fill out this record.  The role of gay men and women in the movement is also beginning to be told.  Biographies and collected writings by Bayard Rustin, an African American man who was the acknowledged mastermind organizer of the March on Washington in 1963 and who taught Gandhi’s nonviolent strategy to Dr. King, exemplify the comprises and contradictions within the movement with respect to sexual orientation.  The influence of the U.S. civil rights movement and African liberation movements should be further explored, as well.  Notably, the anti-Apartheid ANC movement in South Africa abandoned non-violence after scores of non-violently protesting school children were massacred in Sharpeville.  Finally, the role of race itself in the civil rights movement warrants further exploration.  In a racially diverse movement, what was the role of race, and class, in a grassroots mass movement that was committed to educational, economic, and voting rights for the disenfranchised masses of Black people in the South and across the U.S.?  In all of the retrospection, how will the masses of ordinary Black people who risked their lives, property, and livelihoods, be remembered?

Darlene Morris-Newvill accepts the first annual Frank Morris Award for Racial Justice, Civil and Human Rights. (Photo: CCJI)

Looking Back, Moving Forward was a community gathering.  It was a homecoming of sorts in which everyone was welcomed and connected.  The weekend was at times thrilling, moving, and utterly painful.  It was inspiring and soul-filling.  Perhaps most important, it ignited a thirst for more knowledge and imbued participants with a commitment to collective action toward issues of racial equality and social justice that persist today.  The next several years present opportunities for further commemorations of the significant milestones of the civil rights era.  We must take these opportunities during and past the period of fiftieth anniversary commemorations to continue the demand justice for the victims of racial violence during the civil rights era, and for further enlightenment and informed understanding to continue the struggle for equality and justice.

Professors Paula C. Johnson and Janis L. McDonald Co-Direct The Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI), at Syracuse University College of Law.  More information about CCJI and the conference, Looking Back, Moving Forward, can be found at the CCJI website at http://www.syr.edu/coldcaselaw.