Meeting, documentary look to shed light on cold case killings

Published 5:00 am Friday, May 15, 2009

In the almost 54 years since the murder of black voting rightsactivist Lamar Smith in the summer of 1955, no witnesses have evercome forward to share what they saw that day on the lawn of theLincoln County courthouse.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not out there.

“In the reports, there are different references to the numbers30, 50 and 75 as to how many people were there,” said DouglasKnight, a Hattiesburg-based special agent with the Federal Bureauof Investigation. “I would hope there is someone still out there. Ithink, mathematically, there’s still at least one person here.”

Knight was in town Thursday night to address a gathering ofapproximately 50 people at St. James Missionary Baptist church forthe screening of filmmaker Keith Beauchamp’s “Murder in Black andWhite,” a documentary series produced in conjunction with the FBI.The episodes aim to find new witnesses to old civil rights coldcases, so an accurate history may be recorded and closure found forvictims’ families.

Local black community leaders, like the Rev. Larry Jointer, alsoused the gathering as a rally for black voter participation, citingthe sacrifice of Smith – who was gunned down at the courthouse whenthree white men attempted to stop him from delivering a handful ofabsentee ballots from black voters – as reason enough to exercise afought-for right.

“We want the young people to realize there are people who havegiven their lives for us to be able to go vote,” Jointer said. “Wejust had an election, and some of us didn’t go vote.”

Jointer also said he would lead, if necessary, a citywidemovement to purchase and erect a monument to Smith to be placed atthe Lincoln County-Brookhaven Government Complex. Smith’s name isthe second listed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.,but no local marker in his memory exists.

Meanwhile, the FBI will continue attempting to gather testimonyon Smith’s murder.

Knight is the federal agent assigned to investigate the civilrights cold case of Smith, who was murdered on Aug. 13, 1955, forhis work in black voting rights activism.

The men arrested in connection with the crime were released whenno witnesses came forward to testify, but Knight is hoping to findthem and record their stories. He said he has confirmed that allthree of the men originally arrested in the case have passed away,meaning a second trial is almost impossible. Knight’s goal in theinvestigation, he said, is to uncover the truth and record as manyfacts as possible.

“One of the reasons we participated in (the film series) isbecause people know things,” Knight said. “There is information infamilies that people accept as folklore, but getting them to comeforward has been challenging. If there was someone who was awitness, I’d love to just sit down and talk to them.”

Knight and the FBI is reaching out to Brookhaven and othercommunities that hosted unsolved civil rights murders by pairing upwith filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, whose documentary series, “Murderin Black and White,” aims to educate communities on the history ofsuch cold cases and canvas for witnesses.

“We’re reaching out into the community to ask them to help solvesome of these crimes,” Beauchamp said. “The FBI can’t do it allalone. At some point, they’re going to have to start shutting thesecases down, and the family will be left with nothing. If anyoneknows anything, you’ve got to come forward.”