When the subject turns to prosecuting cold case civil rights crimes, the South immediately springs to mind.
Medgar Evers’ killer, Byron De La Beckwith, was convicted of assassinating the civil rights leader in 1994, 31 years after Evers was gunned down in the driveway of his Mississippi home and 30 after two criminal trials ended in hung juries.
It took trials in 1977, 2001 and 2004 to convict three of four men suspected of the infamous 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, all 14, and Carol Denise McNair, 11, in 1963.
Now state Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-South Ozone Park) has introduced legislation that would make sure New York State is not ignoring some of its own history.
Speaking on Feb. 21 at a ceremony marking the 55th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X in Harlem, Sanders announced the introduction of S.7708, which would provide funding to state and local law enforcement to pursue investigations of civil rights crimes that took place no later than Dec. 31, 1979. It also would require the office of the New York State attorney general to conduct an annual review of unsolved cases.
Bill S.7797 would establish the Civil Rights Cold Case Review Board, and set up the collection of civil rights cold case records in the New York State Archives.
“This is a case of justice delayed,” Sanders told the Chronicle in a telephone interview last week. “We don’t have a statute of limitations on murder.”
“There are many gaps in our American psyche that need to be healed,” he added.
Sanders said both have companion bills in the Assembly, with sponsors including Assemblyman Clyde Vanel (D-Queens Village), and that they are based on federal legislation named for Evers that provides support for state and local law enforcement. And while he acknowledges cold case crimes have garnered more attention in the South, he said there is a need for legislation in New York.
“In the black community we have two expressions — ‘down South,’ which means the South, and ‘Up South,’ which means the North,” he said. “And there is a history of civil rights struggles in the North. Martin Luther King met his biggest defeat in Chicago when he tried to desegregate housing there. The Congress of Racial Equality was founded in Chicago.” King and his followers, in fact, were attacked with bricks, rocks and bottles while marching in white Chicago suburbs.
Sanders believes Malcolm X’s murder would fall under his legislation, and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. back in February announced that his office will be reviewing the convictions of the three men found guilty in his murder. The move came on the heels of a new Netflix documentary calling the convictions into question.
“I first asked him to reopen that case five years ago,” Sanders said.