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New Documentary Highlights Unsolved Civil Rights-Era Murder

The grainy black-and-white footage shows a meeting of local Black leaders in Natchez, Miss., on Aug. 13, 1965.

The purpose of the meeting: “For the protection of our Negro citizens against the Ku Klux Klan.”

It was the first gathering of a group that aimed to protect local civil rights activists from the racial terror of local Klansmen.

“You know the risk that we finna [are going] to take, right?” James Jackson, a local barber and one of the group’s organizers, asked the room. “Get out now because once you’re in there ain’t no out, see?”

Two years later, group member Wharlest Jackson was killed by a car bomb on his drive home from work at Armstrong Tire and Rubber. Jackson worked as a chemical mixer and was the first Black man to hold that role. No one was ever found responsible for his killing.

A new documentary from PBS “Frontline” called “American Reckoning” highlights Jackson’s murder. His killing is one of more than 100 cases reopened after the 2008 passing of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which seeks to bring justice to the unsolved murders of the civil rights era. Since starting the program, there have been three successful state prosecutions, according to a 2021 Justice Department report. However, 61 cases have been closed due to the deaths of all people involved, 38 were reviewed but not reopened due to lack of evidence, and some were not reopened because of other legal reasons such as double jeopardy. The show premieres Feb. 15 at 10 p.m. Eastern time on PBS.

About US spoke with directors of the project Brad Lichtenstein and Yoruba Richen. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


How did you become familiar the Wharlest Jackson story, and what struck you about this case?

Lichtenstein: It actually goes back to John Lewis. I had had a lifelong friendship with him that began when I worked with him when I was 15, when he was running for Congress in Atlanta where I grew up. And I had been talking with him about a possible film about forgiveness, which was sparked by a moment when a former Klan member who had beaten John Lewis during the civil rights movement had come forward and asked for forgiveness.

I was in his office talking about that with him and with his press secretary, and she shifted my focus over to the Emmett Till Act, which they had introduced and the cases, what were called the cold cases at the time. And that’s really where it started.

I got interested in the Wharlest Jackson story in particular because I discovered that there was a treasure trove of archival footage filmed by Ed Pincus back in 1965 and in 1967, right after his murder. And you know, with any historical story, you want images to be able to tell that story. So there were obviously over a 120 cases or people who were included in the Emmett Till Act. But this felt like an opportunity to really be able to tell a story and bring it to life because this footage existed.

Read entire article at Washington Post