When Christian was pulling bream from a creek or sometime after, a white man named Robert E. Haynes, 41, confronted him, possibly claiming he was trespassing. An argument ensued and, in the end, Haynes leveled a 16-gauge shotgun at Christian and pulled the trigger. Christian, a 54-year-old black man, died from the gunshot wound to his stomach.
In the wake of the crime, then-Calhoun County Sheriff Roy Snead told the press, “apparently Christian and a companion were fishing in a creek, and this fellow went down to run them off.”
It was, by anyone’s measure, an appalling killing, yet it was not an unusual one for that era in the South, a time when the civil rights movement was in full swing, when racial tensions were running high, when hatred was at its apex.
Quite simply, events such as this were not uncommon during the civil rights era. Some of them made the news, as the shooting of Christian did in The Star and in a brief mention by the Associated Press. Some were prosecuted, as was the case with Christian’s killer, Haynes. (He was sentenced to five years for first-degree manslaughter, later escaped, but was apprehended.) But many of them were not written up in the press, were passed over by local district attorneys or were never investigated at all.
In recent years, there has been a renewed push to re-examine many of these old cases — just how many is anyone’s guess — with some of them leading to prosecutions.
Four years ago, the Department of Justice launched its Cold Case Initiative, pledging to “identify and investigate the murders committed during the civil rights era.”
Since then, the department’s work in the area has been kept from the public. FBI officials would not say which cases they were working on, or even how many cases were being examined. Journalists and others were left to make educated guesses.
In late July, the Justice Department submitted a report to Congress on the progress of the Cold Case Initiative. The report contains a list of 122 cases. Of those cases, 60 were closed, while 62 remain open.
The report lists a total of 17 cases from Alabama. Eleven of them, including Thad Christian’s, remain open, while six have been closed.
One listed as open is the case of Rogers Hamilton, who was taken from his home by white men in rural Lowndes County in 1957 in the middle of the night, and shot in the head at point-blank range.
“I am very pleased they are continuing to look at it,” said Beatrice Christian, 67, the younger sister of Hamilton, from her home in Cleveland. “My family and I are hoping for justice. I want to see it.” (Beatrice Christian is not related to Thad Christian.)
For Gwen Lassiter of Butler, the report is a sign that authorities may be paying attention to the long-forgotten case of her uncle, Frank Andrews, who was shot in the back by a policeman in nearby Lisman in 1967.
“I’m happy to know the case is still open,” she said. “All my family wants and needs is closure to this. This lets me know we might get it.”
The report says that in a majority of the cases the department decided to close, all of the subjects are dead, while in 14 of them, it was determined that there was insufficient evidence of a racially motivated crime.
This helps explain why a case such as Christian’s and others such as that of Jon Daniels, a white Episcopal seminarian killed in Lowndes County in 1965, remain open, while others, such as the case of James Motley, who died in police custody in Elmore County in 1966, were closed.
Douglas Astralaga, a spokesman for the FBI field office in Mobile, said that while the bureau will “look at every avenue out there to bring justice to these victims and their families,” he explained that there are many barriers to prosecution, especially after so many years have passed.
“I cannot speak to the individual cases,” he said, “but there were many things to consider when looking at the possibility of prosecuting these cases. The suspect may have been deceased; the witnesses may be dead; there may be a total lack of evidence. There are certain parameters we must stay within.”
While the report itself says the Department of Justice has “always been willing to reassess and review cold cases when new evidence comes to light,” it also points out the difficulties in prosecuting those cases.
“There are certain difficulties inherent in these cold cases,” the report said, “Subjects die; witnesses die or can no longer be located; memories become clouded; evidence is destroyed.”
The report also mentions cases referred to the states, including the case of Jimmie Lee Jackson. In 2007, a Perry County grand jury indicted ex-state trooper James Fowler on a murder charge in that 1965 case, though it has yet to come to trial. Open as well is the case of Nathan Johnson Jr., killed in Alabaster in 1966. Fowler also shot Johnson.
The former trooper maintains he fired in self-defense in both cases.