Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2021, $500,000)
Today in the Deep South, scores of civil rights murders remain unsolved, uninvestigated, unprosecuted and untold. These legacies of violence and silence haunt the region and continue to damage race relations in the U.S. The divisive and painful legacy of racial injustice in the South can only be healed through the determined pursuit of justice for victims who have been forgotten or ignored.
Newly elected Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams understands that working to undo past harm is necessary for the community to feel sufficiently protected by the criminal legal system. Therefore, he established a Civil Rights Division (CRD) with a mission to reduce the effects of past harm done to vulnerable communities by the State–including its failure to provide essential services to people of color.
The CRD is working to design its work based on a transitional justice model. The “Undoing Jim Crow Cold Cases Initiative” would be a central pillar of the transitional justice work that needs to be done.
Never has a New Orleans district attorney made such a deep commitment to undo past harms. DA Williams’ commitment, coupled by BJA’s support, provides us with a historic opportunity to address past these harms and pursue redress and accountability to the fullest extent of the law.
But the challenge in doing this is that there is no catalog of wrongs. Betrayal is etched in the memories of our city’s elders and passed down through generations. Evidence of violence against Black citizens is held in random police department storage boxes or the City Archives that have never been audited. It is in the institutional memories of veteran civil rights attorneys and the city’s civil rights-era activists, and it is in the projects of universities and research institutes. But no government agency—let alone any law enforcement agency—has ever taken the responsibility to document the extent of deaths that the Black citizens of New Orleans have suffered at the hands of law enforcement prior to 1980.
With this Initiative, OPDA will make as complete an accounting as possible of racially motivated homicide cold cases; investigate these cases and suspicious deaths which remain unclassified; and communicate with the community the full truth of the government’s role in these murders.
We hope to show the nation that when government leads by doing the hard work of holding itself accountable, communities can begin the hard work of honest healing