Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project has examined some 400 cold cases involving anti-civil rights violence in the United States and other miscarriages of justice between 1930 and 1970. The project, led by law professor Margaret Burnham, is creating an archive of historical records, legal documents, video and audio recordings, photos, and other materials that she says, when complete, will be “the most important repository of documents about these cases in the country.”
However, Burnham, speaking Friday morning in her keynote address at the Association for Black Culture Centers’ 25th annual conference in Boston, noted “as important as history is, we’re not just doing it for history’s sake.” She and her Northeastern law students—as well as others in disciplines like history and journalism—continue to redress the injustices of the civil rights era through truth and reconciliation proceedings, criminal prosecutions, civil lawsuits, and legislative remedies.
Just as important, Burnham said, is the project’s mission to connect with the people and communities affected by these incidents.
“Our project is not just about commemoration, though that’s very important,” Burnham said. “It’s commemoration for a purpose. It’s preserving memory and activating memory, so that we can understand and engage with the issues we’re working on today.”
The four-day conference, which was held at the Hyatt Regency Boston, was co-hosted by Northeastern’s John D. O’Bryant African American Institute and the Association for Black Culture Centers, which seeks to celebrate, promote, and critically examine the African American, Latino, Asian American, and Native American cultures.
For her part, Burnham joined Northeastern’s faculty as a law professor in 2002 and is an expert on civil and human rights, comparative constitutional rights, and international criminal law. In 1977 Burnham became the first African American woman to serve in the Massachusetts judiciary, and in 1993 she was appointed by Nelson Mandela to investigate allegations of human rights abuses against members of the African National Congress.
In 2014 the Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, honored Burnham with its “Living Legend” award in recognition of her work as a civil rights lawyer, educator, and activist.
In her keynote address, Burnham said that the project has examined high-profile cases, such as the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four girls. But many others, she noted, are far lesser known. She described and showed video interviews about several of these cases.
One involves Malcolm Wright, who was killed in front of his family in 1949 in Mississippi. Another involves Isaiah Nixon, a Georgia man who was shot to death on his front steps in 1948 for daring to exercise his constitutional right to vote. There is also Samuel Bacon, who worked for the Firestone Rubber Company in Ohio and upon returning to visit his previous home of Fayette, Mississippi, was jailed and found shot to death the next morning.
Burnham addressed nearly 100 people, comprising high school and college students from around the country as well as university and cultural center administrators. She urged them to seek opportunities to explore these types of cases and integrate them into their curricula, noting how the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project has worked with high school students at the local Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.
“Some of this is being lost,” she said of history of these cold cases. “It’s slipping through our fingers.”