By Lauren Milideo
In 2009, students and faculty at Louisiana State University joined a local newspaper editor in investigating racist and unsolved crimes from the state’s troubled past. The LSU Cold Case Project is now offered as a class every fall semester, under the direction of former New York Times reporter Christopher Drew.
The class has it’s roots in the detailed work of Stanley Nelson, then-editor of the Concordia Sentinel who started writing stories about the murder of a Black shoe store owner, Frank Morris. Although the murder happened in 1964, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act and the FBI Cold Case Initiative, allowed unsolved crimes to be re-opened. Nelson wrote dozens of stories over the next few years and in 2009, Drew’s predecessor at LSU, Jay Shelledy, offered to help.
“(Shelledy) decided that one thing we could do… was put in Freedom of Information Act requests for FBI records, because Stanley didn't have a lot of time to deal with that,” Drew said.
The collaboration grew from there, with Shelledy taking students to Washington, D.C., most semesters to track down records in the National Archives, Drew said. The group stayed in inexpensive hotels and sidestepped photocopying fees by photographing records, then sharing them with Nelson back in Louisiana.
Drew stepped into his current role in 2017, he said, and one day in late 2018, letters from the National Archives arrived – then a few thousand pages of documents. It turned out Shelledy had requested them years earlier, Drew said.
“One of the files was about the Deacons for Defense and Justice, which was the only Black armed resistance group against the Klan in Louisiana and Mississippi,” Drew said. Drew’s students developed a four-part story series about the group that appeared in newspapers across Louisiana in the spring of 2020.
“It was really remarkable because there were a couple of the Deacons that the students got to interview, which was fabulous for them,” Drew said.
The following year, the students pursued a story series about the 1960 murders in Monroe, Louisiana of four Black men – Alfred Marshall, Earnest McFarland, Albert Pitts, Jr. and David Lee Pitts – and the shooting of a fifth, Charlie Willis, who had gone to collect back pay owed by their employer, a white man who owned a sanitation company, Drew said.
Six decades later, the students located two witnesses for the story series. One, now 94, had lived next door to the murder scene; the other, a now-93-year-old sister of two of the murder victims, had spoken with the shooting’s lone survivor. The victims’ sister spoke to the LSU students and saw the story run in papers – and died of COVID three days later.
“But she told her family and friends that she felt so happy that her story had finally been told,” Drew said. “She finally got to tell her story to somebody and she knew it had been published.”
This year, the students focused on a Louisiana case that had been added to the FBI list after Congress reauthorized and expanded the Emmett Till Unsolved Crimes Act: the 1972 Southern University shootings of students Leonard Brown and Denver Smith, both 20. The two were shot by a Sheriff’s deputy during protests demanding more equitable facilities and better funding for the historically Black university – though neither student was participating in the protests.
For this project, Drew and his students collaborated with two Southern University Law Center students. The men’s families agreed to speak with the students, sharing memories of the events surrounding the shootings. The students also examined nearly 2,700 pages of FBI files showing how agents quickly narrowed their search to a handful of deputies but could not prove who fired the fatal shot. The series appeared in Louisiana newspapers throughout the fall, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the shootings on November 16.
One outlet that ran the stories was New Orleans nonprofit news site Verite.
“All four of them have been among our top performers as far as page views and visits – two of them, specifically,” said Managing Editor Tim Morris. “But all four of them have been good. And the feedback that we got from people has been fantastic.” He added, “I thought the series was very well-put-together, visually and in reporting.”
Morris also noted the stories’ larger impact: “When I started reading the stuff that they were doing, even just bringing a spotlight on that would have been great. But they also did a lot of incredible work to understand what happened, to try to really bring a resolution to this.” Morris added, “And I think the fact that the governor came out and issued an apology on behalf of the state and signed a proclamation – that that would not have happened if they had not done this.”
The students’ work is provided free to these outlets without editing needed, Drew said.
“We do all the work, and then we have a lot of news sites that run our stories. We’re not doing it as a joint thing with them. They're eager to run the stories, but we do the work.” Students do some of the work through a class called Field Experience, but several have continued working with Drew through the summers, he said. He pays them as part-time employees through the endowed Chair position he currently holds. He also received a $20,000 award from the Data-Driven Reporting Project to help cover summer costs.
Nelson published a book, Devils Walking: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s, in 2016, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. He joined Drew at LSU in 2019 as an adjunct and helped run the Southern project after retiring from his newspaper editor position in December 2021.
The LSU students’ work has won and been nominated for several awards. “It started out as, how can we help this amazing guy who's covering the school board meetings and the town meetings and putting out a weekly newspaper with very little help, and doing all this on the side?” Drew said. “And then it's kind of evolved into a much bigger thing for us.”
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