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After Four Years, Cold Case Crime Center Has Done Little Solving

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Laura Faith Kebede
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Former state representative Johnnie Turner speaks at a vigil in May 2022 in Memphis to commemorate the anniversary of Ell Person's lynching, which was attended by thousands of onlookers in 1917.

Four years ago, it seemed like a long-awaited step in the right direction: state lawmakers created the Tennessee Civil Rights Crimes, Information, Reconciliation and Research Center to collect data on unsolved crimes from the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement.

But little headway has been made in the search for historic justice, and for former State Representative Johnnie Turner, it’s personal.

“I thought by this time, much, much more would have been done. I have been disappointed,” Turner says.

It’s not just because of her activism during the Civil Rights Movement. But because in 2018, she and representative G.A. Hardaway finally passed legislation to create the center – the first of its kind in the nation. Information is collected on a website and phone hotline about unsolved crimes and murders. Ideally, the data could help law enforcement make convictions, even decades later.

But four years in, the work is missing a crucial ingredient: funding.

Cynthia Deitle, a former FBI agent who oversaw federal investigations into similar crimes nationwide, said that to really pull it off, lawmakers need to fund researchers – and fast.

“I don't know what they thought was going to happen after they passed it because you need money to carry that out,” Deitle says.

The center is in Nashville, housed in the legislature’s Office of Minority Affairs. It has two employees who share other duties. A small public exhibit on reconciliation opened in April.

Allan Ramsaur, a former state lobbyist, is on the board of Tennesseans for Historical Justice, a coalition of state organizations that pushed for the center’s creation. He says communication with the state broke down during the pandemic. More could be done on both sides to get the initiative back on track.

But either way, Ramsaur says, "We don't have staff, we don't have an investigator. We've done what we've done through volunteers and through what grants and contributions we've been able to scrape together.”

The time to revisit some of these crimes is running out, as many who lived through the 1950s and '60s are nearing the ends of their lives. Their testimonies will soon be forever silent. For Memphis lawmaker G.A. Hardaway, it’s more reason to get answers as soon as possible.

"We're at the point where the reckoning is what we were focused on, because we know there has to be a reckoning before there can be reconciliation," Hardaway says.

After victims and their families have justice, he says, is when the nation can really begin to heal.

Laura Faith Kebede is a Report for America corps member and the coordinator for Civil Wrongs, a project of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis that examines historical cases of racial terror and analyzes their effect today.