Relatives of victims of civil rights era violence meet in Atlanta

Shelton Chappell doesn't remember his mother's touch.

He never heard her read him a bedtime story. The only photo he has is one in which she's lying on a table in the morgue with his father sadly looking down.

Chappell was just four months old when his mother, a domestic and midwife, was gunned down on a Florida road, as she searched for a wallet that she dropped returning home from work and the grocery store.

The 35-year-old black mother of 10 died from a single gunshot to the abdomen. And the four white men responsible for Johnnie Mae Chappell's death, he said, are still walking free.

The triggerman served three years and charges were dropped against the others, according to media reports years later about the killing, which happened during the nation's turbulent civil rights movement. During that period, blacks were fighting to get equal treatment in America, something often met with hostility -- if not outright violence.

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The murder "really destroyed the family," said the 46-year-old electrician, musician and sound technician, who moved to the metro area a few years ago from Miami. "Had it happened four months earlier, I would have been in her stomach -- killed."

This week, Chappell will meet with others who share his pain. More than 70 relatives of people murdered during the civil rights era will gather in Atlanta on Friday and Saturday for the "Never Too Late for Justice" retreat, hosted by Syracuse University's College of Law's Cold Case Justice Initiative.

"We need to come together so we can share, hear each others' stories and help heal," he said. Just as the families of victims of 9-11 have found a closeness, so can the relatives of people who died by homegrown violence, he said. "This was terrorism, too."

Janis J. McDonald, a Syracuse professor of law and co-director of the initiative, said the project was founded in 2007 after she was contacted by relatives of Frank Morris, a Ferriday, La., shoe shop owner who was murdered in December 1964. They were frustrated because they could not get anyone to investigate his death.

Morris' shop was set ablaze and gunmen forced him back into the building where he was burned and later died of his injuries.

His case remains unsolved.

Law students, under the supervision of McDonald and co-director, Paula C. Johnson, pored over thousands of pages of documents and worked with local investigative journalists to find new witnesses. They also pushed for federal officials to investigate his murder.

"We realized that the families were living this daily," McDonald said. "Many of these family members were between 8 and 12 when they witnessed or experienced the loss of their relatives."

She said families are coming for different reasons: some want to share their stories; others seek to have their relatives' death certificates changed to reflect homicide; and others are pursuing justice against the murderers.

"The larger question that our society has never answered is about the role of law enforcement" in some of the deaths, she said. In some cases, they looked the other way and never fully investigated. In others, officers may have participated directly.

"I think they deserve our full attention," McDonald said. "These are murders."

The families will begin to arrive Friday for a private, facilitated retreat, which resumes Saturday. There will be a public panel discussion at 3 p.m. Saturday at Ebenezer Baptist Church, 407 Auburn Ave., followed by a free concert by singer Mavis Staples. It's no coincidence that the conference is being held in Atlanta, home of the civil rights movement and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was also gunned down by an assassin.

The panel discussion will address the legal, historical and societal impact of the killings.

McDonald expects more families to come forward as word spreads.

"There are more cases out there," she said. "We expect more families to bring their unresolved crimes forward and that is a good thing if justice really means anything; if each murder is worth pursuing as a violation of what we call law. If you can get away with a murder, if you manage to keep it under wraps for forty years, what does that say about our people, our society and our laws. Not much."

A few years after his mother's death, Chappell said officials broke up the family, sending he and his siblings to live with relatives, in juvenile shelters and foster homes. Some of them still struggle with anger and frustration.

Chappell said it's important for further generations to have justice and closure.

"I can’t stop," he said. "They're [the killers are] living their lives and she's in the grave forever."

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