Emory students tackle unsolved, unpunished killings from the Civil Rights Movement—and draw parallels to today

Hank Klibanoff’s class, Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, mixes journalism and creative writing with history and African American studies
Emory Civil Rights Movement

Illustration by Celia Jacobs

Hank Klibanoff’s students are talking about running. Specifically, why an innocent black teenager would run from white cops in Macon in 1962.

Simone Senibaldi, a senior, says, “The thing about running—for me and people that I know who are black—is that whenever cops are around, you run, regardless of whether you’re innocent or guilty.” Senibaldi is one of 15 students enrolled in the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, an Emory University class taught by Klibanoff, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist.

On this fall day, the students are discussing the case of A.C. Hall, a 17-year-old boy who was shot and killed in 1962 by two policemen searching for “a colored man” who had stolen a gun out of a white couple’s car. They spotted Hall in the driveway of an elementary school with his friend Eloise Franklin. Hall ran and the officers opened fire, shooting at him until a bullet pierced his heart and he collapsed in the street. Hall died before he reached the hospital. A grand jury decided not to indict the two officers.

In a tight space on the ground floor of the Woodruff Library, the class is picking apart Franklin’s testimony during the coroner’s inquest. Franklin, only 16 years old, was a key witness to the shooting of her friend. The students, some of whom have never read court documents, have pored over 129-plus pages of transcripts. The printed words paint Franklin, being quizzed by a white solicitor general, as confused about what happened. But it’s not that simple. “I don’t think she was confused,” one student says. “I think they were trying to confuse her.”

To set the scene, Klibanoff projects maps of the neighborhood where the shooting took place and plays a video of Macon-raised Otis Redding’s “Respect” on a screen. The students sit at tables arranged in a circle so they can discuss the case.

The project—which mixes journalism and creative writing with history and African American studies—was started in 2011 by Klibanoff and Brett Gadsden, who now teaches at Northwestern University. Per the project’s course description, the class explores Georgia history “through the prism of unsolved or unpunished racially motivated murders that occurred in the state during the modern civil rights era.”

Klibanoff was inspired to start the project by a list of more than 100 unsolved civil rights–era murder victims released by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2006. The list—one that journalists have added to over the years—included 19 people from Georgia whose murder cases were reopened. In some cases, the victim’s assailant is known. Klibanoff, who spent more than 30 years as a reporter and editor at The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says the class isn’t focused on “the whodunit, because in most cases we know whodunit. This is a big window on who we were as a people when we weren’t at our best, and that to me is the more eye-opening thing.”

Senior Alec Woodard, who wants to be a journalist, says that the class helps put in perspective what he sees as the country’s current failure to protect civil liberties. “The goal of journalism is to monitor the centers of power and the accumulations of power,” he says. “The civil rights era was a great era of people, not just journalists, doing that. I would like to be a part of the next generation of progress.”

Each class focuses on a single case all semester and builds upon earlier classes’ findings. Previous groups probed the case of James Brazier, a black man who was killed by Dawson police seemingly because he was driving an expensive car in 1958. Another examined the case files of Clarence Pickett, who was beaten to death in a jail cell by a Columbus police officer in 1957.

After spending weeks reading documents, newspaper clippings, and family archives, each student writes a paper on a theme related to the case. “There’s something more important than just the crime story,” Klibanoff says. “This is about an injustice that no one was ever prosecuted.” Sometimes the students even travel to the Georgia locations where the killings took place. Along the way, they uncover records they never knew existed and even interview witnesses and family members.

Emory Civil Rights Movement
Isaiah Nixon’s daughter had not seen his grave in 67 years.

Photograph by Melissa Golden

Perhaps the most moving discovery thus far involved the case of Isaiah Nixon, a father of six who was shot by Jim Johnson, a white man, in Alston after Nixon voted in Georgia’s Democratic primary on September 8, 1948. Johnson was charged with murder but acquitted by an all-white jury after a three-hour trial. Soon after Nixon’s death, his family fled to Florida, and the location of his gravesite was forgotten.

In the fall of 2015, three students road-tripped with Klibanoff 180 miles down to the Old Salem Cemetery near Uvalda. They suspected Nixon was buried there, and as they walked past the graves, Emory junior Ellie Studdard noticed some concrete peeking through dirt and leaves at the edge of the cemetery. First, she saw just an “I.” She brushed away dirt, revealing the month “Sep,” and finally “Isaiah Nixon.”

Emory Civil Rights Movement
Students traveled 180 miles to Old Salem Cemetery.

Photograph by Melissa Golden

In January, Klibanoff and five students returned to the cemetery with Nixon’s family, including his daughter Dorothy, who had visited the class earlier that fall to tell her father’s story. “At that time in our history, an act of voting was an act of protest,” Klibanoff said at the grave. “It was a right that was deprived him, and he paid the price for voting, and that is something I think we are all resolved to never let happen again.”

Connecting rights denied in the past with those denied now is another natural outcome of studying these cases, though that’s something that Klibanoff prefers students discover on their own rather than lecturing about it. “We almost can’t help [but see that] it’s relevant to our daily lives,” says senior Jillian Alsberry. “It’s important that we are able to connect the two periods.”

A.C. Hall, a few years younger than most of Klibanoff’s students, ran as soon as he saw the police headlights, most likely because he was afraid of white police officers, regardless of his innocence that night in 1962.

“Walter Scott ran, too,” one student says, referring to the unarmed man who was fatally shot by a police officer in April 2015 in South Carolina. Like Scott, Hall was probably unarmed the night he died. “There’s something eerily current about that,” Klibanoff says.

This article originally appeared in our December 2017 issue.