Cold case: FBI might release thousands of files on Louisiana KKK, civil rights-era murders
The U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday approved four nominees to serve on a national board tasked with reviewing and eventually releasing to the public hundreds of thousands of pages of FBI documents on murder cases from the civil rights-era.
Most cases involve Ku Klux Klan murders of African Americans that occurred in Louisiana or other Southern states.
A fifth nominee for the Civil Rights Records Review Board has yet to be named.
The four nominees approved Wednesday are university professors. One, Hank Klibanoff, is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist now teaching at Emory University. The other three are Margaret A. Burnham of Northeastern University, Gabrielle M. Dudley of Emory University, and Brenda E. Stevenson of UCLA.
The possibility of gaining access to unredacted documents about these cases has long been a hope of journalists, historians and family members still searching for answers to unsolved homicides.
According to the FBI and the Department of Justice, 15 Louisiana residents were murdered in these types of cases between 1954 and 1973.
Among the 15 Louisiana victims were Albert Pitts, Jr., David Lee Pitts, Alfred Marshall, and Earnest McFarland who were shot and killed near Monroe by their employer, Robert Fuller. A few months after the shooting, Fuller became a statewide leader in the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Although the FBI has closed these and most of the other Louisiana cases, accessing records with information not previously known would detail a more accurate story of what happened in all of these cases even though it would not likely lead to new prosecutions as many of the suspects are deceased.
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The review board was created under the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2019. It would consider for release previously redacted or classified FBI documents regarding racially motivated cold case murders.
The nominees for the board also appeared before the Senate committee on Jan. 13 to discuss their role.
Homeland Security Committee Chairman Gary Peters of Michigan said during his opening statement then that the board can now begin “the difficult, but important work of telling the victims’ stories and shedding light on this dark chapter of our nation’s history.”
Nominees say they will create a schedule for review, decide which records to release and which to postpone.
They acknowledged that their position on the board will require substantial time and effort to accomplish the tasks outlined in the statute.
“We all appreciate that this is not an honorary board; this is a working board,” Klibanoff, who also directs the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Case Project, said at the January hearing.
“And there’s a lot to do and we are all committed to doing it for the same reason we’ve been committed to this work in all the years leading up to this,” he said.
Prior to passage of the collection act, Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act in 2007. The act required the FBI to re-open civil rights-era murder cases from the 1950s and 1960s and consider potential living suspects for prosecution in these cases.
The reauthorization of the Till Act in 2016 expanded the scope of the FBI’s effort to include re-opening cases from the 1970s.
Since 2007, the US Department of Justice opened 132 matters involving 151 victims. DOJ closed 119 matters, including two federal prosecutions and 10 referrals to state authorities, according to a report by the U.S. attorney general in 2021.
The timing for a vote on the four nominees by the full Senate is uncertain, despite bipartisan support.