That morning, just a few miles away, four black girls had died when a KKK bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. As they flew down the Docena-Sandusky Road, the Ware brothers — 16-year-old James pedaling, Virgil, 13, balanced on the handlebars — had not heard of the bombing and had no idea how dangerous it was to be out that day.
Michael Farley and Larry Joe Sims, two 16-year-old white boys, were riding a motorbike down the same road, a miniature Confederate flag flapping behind them, when they came across two friends who said they'd seen a couple of black kids throwing rocks up the way. Farley reportedly opened his jacket to reveal a recently purchased .22-caliber, pearl-handled pistol, saying, "We'll take care of them."
As they approached the two black boys, Farley handed the pistol to Sims. Sims fired twice, and Virgil fell.
At 64, James Ware's memory of that day is still vivid.
"Ware," Virgil gasped as his older brother leaned over him. "I'm shot."
"No, you're not," James recalls saying. "Get up." But his brother, wounded in the cheek and chest, never moved or spoke again.
Farley and Sims were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Sims, an Eagle Scout, claimed that his eyes were closed when he shot, and that he was only trying to scare the other boys. After a jury convicted Sims of second-degree manslaughter, Farley pleaded guilty to the same charge. Each was sentenced to seven months, suspended.
James Ware received his letter in late March.
Despite the light sentences, the two men could not be retried in state court ("jeopardy has attached"), and a five-year statute of limitations precluded federal civil rights charges against anyone in the case, the letter said.
James Ware never accepted that the shooting was an accident. But he had long ago accepted the apologies of Farley and Sims, and had considered the case closed.
If nothing else, the renewed investigation rescued Virgil from obscurity, he says. "I don't see what else could be done. He got full recognition. That's what I wanted for him — to be known about."
But to some families who have waited decades for justice, the FBI's letters have brought no peace.
When lounge manager Jasper Greenwood went missing in Vicksburg, Miss., on June 21, 1964, his family immediately suspected foul play. The FBI was told that Greenwood was allegedly last seen in the company of two white men.
By the time his body was found eight days later on a road outside Vicksburg, it was badly decomposed. A coroner's inquest failed to identify a cause of death.
Linda Galvin, Greenwood's granddaughter, says it was a cover-up. "The black funeral home told me that he was castrated and he had what looked to be a stab wound in his throat area," Galvin told the AP. "None of that showed up in the FBI report."
But according to the FBI's letter to the family, agents had interviewed funeral home director W.H. Jefferson in 1964, and he "denied that he thought the hole had been caused by anything other than 'nature' ..." The bureau obtained a copy of the Vicksburg Police Department's report, which concluded that Greenwood had suffered a fatal heart attack while meeting with a married woman on the local "lover's lane."
Family members have suggested that Greenwood might have been targeted for his close association with assassinated NAACP activist Medgar Evers. But the letter noted that Charles Evers, then the NAACP's Mississippi field director, told the FBI that Greenwood "was not active in voter registration efforts or the civil rights movement."
None of that satisfies Greenwood's daughter, Rosemary Domino of Jacksonville, Fla. "If they say it's closed, then it's closed," she says. "But the FBI can be wrong."
The families of Adlena Hamlett and Birdia Keglar also have lingering doubts.
- Texas' Perry says disparaging tweet unauthorized
- Ben Barnes, Katherine Heigl in tune in...
- Lawmakers: Islamic State groups wants to hit US
- US trained Alaskans as secret 'stay-behind...
- Study claims cave art made by Neanderthals
- No gray area: Beliefs shape firm, disparate...
- Running again? Mitt Romney tells Hugh Hewitt...
- House, Senate intel chiefs press White House...
- 10 things to know about corporate... 32
- Obama tamps down prospect of strikes in... 16
- House, Senate intel chiefs press White... 16
- Saudi king says terrorists will reach... 13
- It's about time the government... 12
- 'Deseret News National Edition': Common... 12
- Freelancers and millennials help usher... 11
- US judge blocks enforcement of new... 8