Buried Truths

The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project helps students uncover the history of crimes committed in the darkest days of the civil rights era

By Maria M. Lameiras

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Mixed Memories: Verda Mae Brazier Bush holds a photo of her father, James Brazier, in front of the childhood home where she witnessed him being beaten by police in 1958.

Kay Hinton

Standing in front of the tiny frame house where she lived until she was twelve, Verda Mae Brazier Bush shifts between memories of playing with her three younger siblings in the large, grassy yard and the life-shattering Sunday afternoon in 1958 when police officers dragged her father away, mercilessly beating him in full view of his screaming family and horrified neighbors.

Five days later, on April 25, 1958, James C. Brazier died of injuries caused by blunt force trauma to the head. In the next few months and years, the Brazier family would find no justice. Local authorities impeded an FBI investigation into the case through intimidation of witnesses, and an all-white grand jury failed to bring an indictment against the white police officers accused of beating James Brazier to the point of death. In 1963, Brazier’s widow, Hattie Bell Brazier, suffered another loss when a jury ruled against awarding her damages in a civil suit she filed in federal court. 

The case would become folklore in the African American community in Terrell County and Dawson, Georgia: a hardworking family man and friend killed at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve. 

In 2006, as part of the US Department of Justice’s commitment to investigating and prosecuting civil rights–era homicides, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began its Cold Case Initiative—a comprehensive program to identify and investigate racially motivated murders committed decades ago. The effort was reinforced in 2008 with the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, and community groups, nongovernmental organizations, and higher education began to join the Department of Justice and the FBI in their efforts.

Since 2011, Emory has offered an interdisciplinary Civil Rights Cold Cases class examining incidents that occurred in Georgia. Cross-listed in journalism, history, African American studies, and American studies at Emory College, the class arms students with historical perspective and principles of journalistic practice, then releases them to pursue new information related to the cases. In January, Emory’s Civil Rights Cold Cases Project launched a website, coldcases.emory.edu, that is the product of more than fifty students’ work during seven semesters of the course.

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History Lesson: Hank Klibanoff and Brett Gadsden (above, from left) learn new details from students.

Taught by Hank Klibanoff, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation and James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism and Brett Gadsden, associate professor of African American studies at Emory, the class developed after Klibanoff worked with newspaper and television reporters who were investigating civil rights cold cases in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Driven to pursue a similar project in Georgia, Klibanoff approached Rudolph Byrd, founding director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference (JWJI) at Emory. With encouragement from the JWJI, Klibanoff launched Emory’s Cold Cases Project.

Klibanoff and Gadsden created the class to build on the work of the project, putting undergraduates to work investigating the cases, then writing and editing academic and journalistic articles on what they found.

“Doing this as a blend of history and journalism is a great idea. What he calls research, I call reporting,” Klibanoff says of Gadsden. “There are rigors to both that are similar.”

Klibanoff already had received the FBI files for the James Brazier case and was gathering documents in preparation for teaching the class in the 2011 fall semester.

“This class is different because it is run like a research seminar, with intense focus on individuals’ lives and attention to the historical context in which these folks lived,” Gadsden says. “These stories come alive for students. They aren’t just presenting cases or telling the stories of lowly black victims. They are really trying to understand what happened, what the circumstances were, what happened to the people, how they lived, how they died, who killed them, and why, but understanding these victims’ deaths as a part of the historical record. ”

Students prepare both a ten-page academic paper on their topic of choice and a condensed article for publication on Emory’s Cold Cases Project website. “It is not just about what they find, but how they present and explain what they’ve found,” Klibanoff says.

“In most classes, students are writing for faculty. In this class they are writing for the professors, for each other, and also for a public of both academics and nonacademics,” Gadsden adds. “They are accountable to the descendants of the lost, and that comes with a special
responsibility—one that the students embrace.” 

Setting the Record Straight

Growing up in suburban Atlanta, Sonam Vashi 15C had a broad knowledge of the civil rights struggle in the South, but she couldn’t grasp what that meant in the day-to-day lives of African Americans at that time.

“History can be this distant, removed item of information, but I think that these cold cases bring history to a very personal, human level that you can’t ignore,” Vashi says. “You carry these stories around in your heart and mind more than something you might just learn on a factual level.”

The experience has influenced how Vashi approached serving as executive editor of the Emory Wheel during her senior year.

“It is important to find stories no one else is looking for, ignored stories, because you will find they have value,” Vashi says. “Even though the people we are reporting on with these cold cases are dead, there is still meaning in giving a true historical record of what happened and setting the record straight.”

One notable aspect of the course is the license students are given to consider the cases from any avenue they choose. 

“Usually in a class, it is the professor imparting information to the students. What we are trying to do here is trust in the students to take ownership of the class. History, journalism, creative nonfiction—students with different interests and skills approach it in different ways,” Gadsden says. “What really matters is that students are doing original research that generates fresh information we don’t know anything about. On any given day I don’t know what someone is going to bring in.” 

In their research on the James Brazier case, students have dissected FBI files, pored through public records, and discovered long-hidden trial transcripts from the civil case brought against Dawson police by Hattie Bell Brazier, James Brazier’s widow.  

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Reeling in Answers: Erica Sterling examines archival records for Emory’s Cold Cases Project.

Senior history major Erica Sterling 15C took the Cold Cases class in spring 2014 and this spring undertook an independent study project to delve into the cases of Joseph Jeter, a housing project manager shot and killed by a white police officer in Northwest Atlanta in September 1958, and Maceo Snipes, a World War II veteran shot in the back by alleged members of the Ku Klux Klan for daring to vote in a 1946 Taylor County primary election. 

Sterling says the research is tricky because students aren’t quite sure what they’ll find.

“I’ve gone through newspaper articles from the time, NAACP records, FBI files—you sort of have to close in on it and build around it. You look at what is public record, and you try to come up with answers. In many instances, no one has looked at what we are looking at until now,” she says. “I would say the most challenging aspect is not finding anything. There are times when you are searching for information, and hours will have gone by and your work has yielded very little. That is frustrating, but if you don’t find what you are looking for, you might find something you don’t expect. You just have to trust the process and keep working.”

Students have examined the case through lenses of economics, medical neglect and malpractice, feminism, sociology, and witness intimidation by local law enforcement during the FBI investigation. 

“The class is constantly evolving because we are thinking of the classes as generations, each building on the previous classes’ work and insights. Their findings reshape the stories we can tell,” Gadsden says. 

After exploring the materials related to the James Brazier case and an explanation of the research topics previous classes had covered, political science and journalism major Scott Schlafer 15C homed in on what he saw as
the gross mishandling of Brazier’s medical treatment.

“Having read about his treatment, it was clear he did not receive the kind of medical care he should have. There was a disparity in the treatment he got from what a white male
in that same jail would have received, completely aside from the fact that he was later taken out of his cell in the middle of the night and beaten [again],” Schlafer says.

Armed with the medical notes of the doctors who treated Brazier and the coroner’s report on his cause of death, Schlafer and classmate Ali Chetkof 14C contacted Emory pathologist Mark Edgar to review the 1958 records.

“Dr. Edgar looked at the records and the coroner’s report. From that he was able to see what happened and what should have happened, or what would have happened today with a patient like that,” Schlafer says. The Cold Cases Project now has an ongoing relationship with Edgar to review any medical documentation students uncover during their research.

“To see that a line of inquiry you followed is something that has substance and is worthwhile is really rewarding,” Schlafer says. “Once you do research on primary sources—to engulf yourself in the time period to understand what it was like—it hits home to see the full spectrum of the Jim Crow South. For James Brazier, it was really a part of every single aspect of his life. And it ended up killing him.”

History major Nathaniel Meyersohn 15C says using primary documents—from FBI files to NAACP records to newspaper archives—offered a new window into history.  “When you are reading FBI interviews with witnesses, these things really jump off the page,” he says. “All of these materials show just how hard it was for blacks to receive justice—how the local police, state officials, and even the federal government were really opposed to using their full resources to investigate civil rights cases.”

Even the smallest details—such as the kind of car James Brazier drove—add context to the cases, Klibanoff says.

“We know James Brazier was driving a new 1958 Chevrolet Impala. That leads to questions about the state of black consumerism in 1958,” Klibanoff says.

In the testimonies from witnesses throughout the Brazier case, it was noted that the officers involved—Weyman Burchle Cherry and Randolph Ennis McDonald—had targeted Brazier in the past for traffic stops and arrests and were resentful of Brazier’s car, with Cherry at one point allegedly saying “You is the n****r who is buying a new car, and we can’t hardly live. I’ll get you yet.”

“Police were clear in why they targeted James Brazier. Our question is, what was the cultural importance or significance of that make of vehicle at that historical moment?” Gadsden asks. “It is an end, but it also is a means, to finding larger truths of what was going on in that time period. The details of these deaths, what the circumstances were around them, tell us about the historical place and time. When we are doing it right in the classroom, that is what’s happening.” 

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Digging Deeper: Alumna and radio journalist Mary Claire Kelly (above) continues her work with the Cold Cases Project. 

Everyone’s Story

For her final paper in the Cold Cases class, Mary Claire Kelly 12OX 14C examined the economics of James Brazier’s case—from his higher-than-average earnings from multiple jobs to the fact that he drove a new car that was out of reach for many residents of the town at the time. Accompanied by Klibanoff and Gadsden, Kelly traveled to Dawson and Albany to meet with James Brazier’s surviving relatives, including Verda Mae Brazier Bush.

The experience was profound for Kelly—academically, professionally, and personally.

“When I went to Terrell County as a student, and I began my thesis, I remember thinking, who am I to tell this story? I am a young, white woman who is originally from Baltimore. Am I the right person to look into this? But I realized this is my story. This is the story of the country I live in and was raised in,” she says. “It shouldn’t be a separate history. This is my story because it is everyone’s story and everyone’s responsibility to learn about the place where we live.” 

Since graduating, Kelly has worked for Klibanoff on a freelance basis alongside her job as producer for the newsmagazine A Closer Look that airs on Atlanta National Public Radio station WABE. 

In school, we’d look at Jim Crow laws or civil rights, usually during Black History Month, but it was kind of skimmed through,” she says. “For the first time, I understood a really important part of my history. It made me realize how much of what the South is like now is because of things we don’t like to speak about.”

Bearing Witness

James Brazier’s family has kept his memory alive over the years, but it often has been painful. Bush is the only member of the family who will still speak about her father’s death to outsiders. Her sister, Hattie Mae Brazier Polite, initially spoke to Klibanoff, Gadsden, and Kelly about the incident, as did one of James Brazier’s sisters, Sarah Brazier, but reliving the family’s tragedy became too difficult. Her brothers—James Jr. and Willie James, whom the family called Ruddy—died in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

“My mother never talked about it to us. Children kept their place; nothing was discussed with children back at that time. We talked to each other about what happened and how awful it was. My brother James had a lot of hatred behind this incident; he hated to think about it,” Bush says. “If you tried to talk to him about this he would get angry and say ‘Don’t come to me with that s***.’ He took it very, very hard until the day he died.”

By contrast, Bush’s daughter has heard the story of her grandfather’s death “ever since she could hear.” Bush also has shared the story over and over again with her four grandchildren.

“Young people today don’t understand the struggle our forefathers went through,” Bush says. “They were born into an integrated society. Mixed-race dating is normal to them, but I remember when people used to be hanged for that. When Hank (Klibanoff) sent me printouts of the website, my youngest granddaughter looked it up on the Internet. All they could do is just shake their heads like they couldn’t believe it.”

Bush has listened to her grandchildren as they declared what they would do in a similar situation—that they would not have put up with such treatment.

“They don’t understand that we were powerless against the law. Powerless. Everyone was afraid in that time. Every time you’d look around, someone was being beaten up or killed, all black men. [Police] would just beat them up because they could,” Bush says. “We just had to sit back and accept it, there was nothing we could do.”

Walking around the edge of the property her parents used to own, Bush mentions absently that the house used to be green before pointing to a shallow, overgrown trench that runs beside the house.

“They drug him through that ditch,” she says, remembering the fear of the day her father was taken from his family and the confusion that came after for her and her younger siblings.   

“I don’t remember that much about what happened during that time. Adults didn’t talk to children like they do now. We had to stay in a room with the other children,” Bush says.  “I remember a lot of people were there at the funeral; everyone was standing outside talking and whispering. I had no real concept of what was going on, but I do remember that was the first time I was allowed to wear stockings.”

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Civil Fights: Verda Mae Brazier Bush (above, left) listens to Lucius Holloway describe the civil rights struggle in Terrell County.

One of the neighbors who witnessed the beating and arrest was Lucius Holloway, who saw the events unfold as he sat on the front porch of his father-in-law’s house, located diagonally across the street, with his parents-in-law and his wife, Emma Kate, who was pregnant with the couple’s first child.

Recently, Holloway and Bush stood and talked in the street in front of the Braziers’ former home, where Holloway’s son now lives.

“They used to say that if a woman saw something bad it could do something to the child, so I scooped Emma Kate up and carried her in the house. They nearly beat him to death right there,” Holloway recalls, pointing. The incident left a lasting impression on him, and he has spent the intervening years fighting for civil and voting rights as an activist with the local NAACP and as the plaintiff in several lawsuits seeking equal African American representation on various city and county boards.

He has written his own history of civil rights in the area, and he welcomes the attention to unsolved and unprosecuted crimes by Emory’s Cold Cases Project.

“Any time a man or woman, boy or girl doesn’t know where they are, where they come from, or where they are going, they cannot succeed. I think it is very helpful for this generation and for future generations to know these things happened here,” Holloway says. 

From a small storefront office on Dawson’s Main Street, Ezekiel Holley mans the Terrell County branch of the NAACP. President of the chapter since 1994, Holley has worked for justice in big cases and small over the years. 

He says that, regardless of the outcome of efforts like the Cold Cases Project, exposing the problems of the past and revealing the truth of what happened in these cases can only yield positive results.

“We have to educate the people, black and white, about the struggle we went through to be where we are. We still have a long way yet to go,” he says. 

Arianna Skibell 14C, who is now pursuing a master’s degree at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York, says the class challenged her. In an age of instantly accessible information, it’s easy to think any answer can be found online, she says.

“In this class, you can’t rely on someone else to gather and sift through information. You can’t rely on Wikipedia. You have to comb through primary documents and synthesize the information yourself. As a journalist it is really important to know how to do this, and to know that finding new truth is still possible.” 

This class is not about convicting criminals. It’s about a rectification of history, which Skibell believes can be equally important. 

“We’re not trying to solve these crimes,” she says. “In most cases the people who committed them are dead. And often there’s no case to solve; it’s clear who committed the crime. But we’re here to bear witness, to tell these people’s stories.”

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Peace of Mind: Verda Mae Brazier Bush at Sardis Cemetery in Dawson, Georgia, where her father’s grave is located.

On the first day of the semester of each new Cold Cases class, Klibanoff shows students a photograph of James Brazier’s headstone. Long blades of grass have grown up around tattered silk roses placed above the grave, and the carved writing on the discolored concrete stone is so weathered it is illegible.

We ask them to look closely at the headstone,” Klibanoff says. “We tell them we can’t bring him back to life, but we can bring him back to visibility so he is no longer an invisible man, no longer a cipher in history.” 

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