Tennessee's unsolved civil rights crimes are getting a fresh look.
Legislators are asking lawyers to dig into the state's history of lynchings, firebombings and other racial violence perpetrated during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. Some cases may even be recommended for prosecution.
The Special Joint Committee on Unsolved Civil Rights Era Crimes approved the investigations Wednesday. The effort stems from a new way of thinking about racist violence: Rather than isolated incidents of mob rule, many argue the killings, beatings and other crimes were a campaign, aimed at keeping African-Americans in the South from exercising their constitutional rights.
In that light, says Alex Little, a former federal prosecutor who's now in private practice, Tennessee can do more than remember the past.
"This is not about putting up statues. This is not about just writing things down. There are ways that we can recognize our past, I think, in a much more proactive and positive way."
Little chairs the Tennessee Historical Justice Coalition a group of lawyers, law students and others who have volunteered to reexamine unsolved cases on behalf of the state legislature. They hope to deliver a final report by the end of the year.
The group's goals include documenting crimes — both those that are well-known and those that might have never been reported. They want to identify cases that could be prosecuted and locate victims and their families.
They're also working to come up with legislative recommendations, which lawmakers could tackle when they reconvene next January.
The panel of state lawmakers gave those objectives their blessing.
"I'm a product of the generation that came after Civil Rights, in the 1970s," said state Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro. "I've never been exposed to racism. ... It's going to be very educational listening to what all we find out."