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Reopening cold-case files of racial injustice

Courtesy photo

On June 4, 1954, a well-known African American landowner, Isadore Banks, disappeared from Crittenden County in Arkansas. A few days later, his mutilated and burned body was found in a small wooded area on his property. The identity of his murderer was never uncovered.

A few years ago, the Banks case returned to the public eye after one of Banks’s relatives asked the U.S. Army to recognize his service in World War I. That’s when Northeastern University law professor Margaret Burnham and students in the School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice (CRRJ) Project began investigating the case, with the aim of finally resolving this crime.

Burnham directs the CRRJ Project, which conducts research and supports policy initiatives related to miscarriages of justice in U.S. civil rights cases from the 1950s to the early 1970s, particularly in the South. The issue behind racial violence during this time, CRRJ researchers have found, is often land.

“We have taken a particular interest in allegations of land loss, because it fits into a pattern across the South,” Burnham said. “Oftentimes, African Americans were deprived of their land-holdings by violent means. There is now important historical work being done to show what the consequences of this were for African American communities in the South.”

In the case of the Banks murder, Burnham said, local authorities at the time didn’t aggressively investigate the crime, and Banks family members were forced to leave the community because no records of the dead man’s land-holdings could be found.

“This case clearly illustrates the connection between racial violence and land loss, which have previously been examined as having separate significance,” Burnham said. “We’re interested in this case because it shows the significant link between these two elements of racial repression during this period of time.”

CRRJ is representing the Banks family in the case. Northeastern law students have conducted interviews in Arkansas and other states with people who were alive at time of the murder. CRRJ researchers have already found numerous mortgages and deeds proving that Banks, at one point, owned at least 500 acres of land. Burnham said they hope to uncover documents that reveal the extent of his land-holdings at the time of his death.

CNN has recently reported on the case.

Banks disappeared shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court declared public-school segregation unconstitutional in its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954. According to Burnham, historical evidence shows racial violence spiked following the ruling.

Last year, CRRJ’s efforts led to a landmark settlement in a 46-year-old civil rights murder case involving the Ku Klux Klan in Franklin County, Miss.