Ossoff celebrates passage of bill to bolster investigations into unsolved lynchings
LISTEN: Sen. Jon Ossoff celebrates passage of bill to bolster investigations into unsolved lynchings from the civil rights era. GPB's Riley Bunch reports.
On a May night in 1949, Caleb Hill Jr. was pulled from the Wilkinson County jail and shot by a lynch mob.
Two white men were charged after a probe by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation but an all-white jury chose not to indict them, according to the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University.
The case remains unsolved more than 70 years later — Hill’s cause of death listed on his death certificate is “shot through the head by hands unknown.”
The story is one of many unsolved lynchings or murders of Black men and women in Georgia during the civil rights era.
Now, a bipartisan bill aimed at bolstering investigations into cold cases during that time is on its way to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature.
The soon-to-be law, championed by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, extends the existence of the federal Cold Case Review Board, established in 2019, through 2027.
Board members review records of cold case murders that occurred during the civil rights era between 1940 and 1979 — with many records having not been made public.
“I think it's important for us to reflect on the fact that this is not that long ago,” Ossoff said in an interview with GPB News. “There are surviving loved ones, relatives, friends of those who were killed in some of the most brutal and heinous ways. …And not only do the victims still deserve justice, but their loved ones, their family members, their friends, their descendants demand justice.”
Although then-President Donald Trump gave the go-ahead for the creation of the review board in 2019, members were not chosen and confirmed until three years later.
Two experts from Georgia were confirmed to serve on the board in February: Hank Klibanoff, a famed journalist and Emory professor, and Gabrielle Dudley, an instruction archivist at the university’s rare books and archives library.
“As an Alabamian and Black daughter of the South, I grew up with the constant reminders of the struggles of the civil rights era and knowledge that unsolved cases existed,” Dudley said during testimony to the Senate last year. “I recognize the cultural value of these records and realize how access to them can spark both transformation and change.”
Ossoff said Georgia has two contrasting legacies during the civil rights movement, both of which should be recognized.
“I believe that Georgians understand our state's extraordinarily complex and in some ways deeply painful history," Ossoff said. "We are both the cradle of the civil rights movement and the heart of the old Confederacy.
“Part of grappling with, reconciling and doing justice, given that history, is ensuring that the truth and justice and accountability are pursued for those terrible acts committed some time ago,” he continued.