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FBI says end near in civil rights-era prosecutions

By Holbrook Mohr

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Nov. 5 2011 8:46 a.m. MDT

Hamlett, 78, was a retired schoolteacher and one of the first blacks to register to vote in Tallahatchie County, Miss. Keglar, 57, was an organizer for the NAACP who had sued the local sheriff after she was prevented from paying her poll tax. Each had testified before a congressional commission in support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The women died on Jan. 11, 1966, as they were returning home from a secret meeting in Jackson with then-U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. For years, relatives and certain researchers have insisted that the car was run off the road by the Klan.

Keglar's granddaughter, Nina Zachery, 76, wept as she described seeing the body at the funeral home. Keglar appeared to have been decapitated.

Zachery was told that the driver of the car, Grafton Gray, supposedly played dead and could hear the women being tortured. "When my family members would try to talk to him, he would not," she recently told the AP.

The FBI tracked down the wreck's lone survivor, backseat passenger Richard Simpson, a white activist from Massachusetts, who confirmed the basic details contained in a Mississippi Highway Patrol report, the bureau's letter said. The accident report said a car on the wrong side of the road struck the activists' car head-on.

"The impact caused the hood of (the) car to break loose and move through the windshield, fatally injuring" Hamlett and Keglar, the FBI determined.

On a gloriously sunny spring day this year, two FBI agents appeared at 79-year-old Lila Hamlett's door in Kansas City, Mo., to deliver their letter.

Dated May 27, it said there was "insufficient evidence to indicate that a racially motivated homicide occurred."

The agents asked if Hamlett had any questions. She had lots, but she didn't bother asking. If the letter was intended to provide closure, it failed.

"It's just an unsolved case," she says. "Whatever it was, it'll never be revealed now. And I just have to accept it."

Some families' refusal to accept what seems like solid evidence is understandable to Patricia A. Turner, a professor of African-American studies and the vice provost for undergraduate studies at the University of California, Davis.

The black community hasn't forgotten longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's reluctance to investigate civil rights violence, or his attempts to discredit Martin Luther King Jr., she says. And when you consider episodes such as the Tuskegee experiments, in which scientists allowed black men with syphilis to go untreated so they could study the effects, it's easy to believe the government is capable of doing — and covering up — just about anything, she says.

"And certainly anything related to something as major as a death, the family members are going to have come up with a narrative, a story that fits their understanding of the world and who has power in it — and who doesn't have power in it." says Turner, author of the 1994 book, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture."

Activists were elated when the initiative was launched, reviewing the old cases. But much of that joy has since faded.

Lawmakers had promised annual funding over a 10-year span: $10 million per year to the FBI, $2 million for state and local law enforcement, and more. But only a fraction has been appropriated.

"It hasn't lived up to its potential," says Sykes. "I'm disappointed."

So is Juanita Evangeline Moore.

Her father, Harry T. Moore, organized the NAACP's Brevard County, Fla., branch in 1934 and served as the organization's first statewide executive secretary. He and his wife taught school in the area south of Cape Canaveral until their activism got them fired.

On Christmas Day 1951 — which was also the couple's 25th wedding anniversary — a bomb went off beneath the floor in their bedroom. The blast collapsed the front end of their modest frame house; their daughter Annie Rosalea, who was in the next room, found them lying at the bottom of a crater, covered in debris.

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