Governor Haslam signs bill to look into civil rights era cold cases

Gov. Bill Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has signed into law a ‘cold case’ bill to investigate unsolved murders from the Civil Rights era. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Johnnie Turner (D-Memphis) and will create a special joint legislative committee specifically to look into unsolved civil rights crimes and cold cases.

The bill passed the Tenn. State Legislature earlier this year with bi-partisan support. It was co-sponsored in the Senate by Republican Leader Mark Norris.

The bill was anchored to a 1939 case where Jesse Lee Bond, Morris’ brother, was killed in a racially motivated beating. Bond entered into an argument with a White shop owner and was later dragged out of his home and beaten to death. No charges were ever filed in the case.

Authorities said Charlie Morris’ brother drowned in 1939, but some times in cases like that, there was another story never officially told. In that committee room in early April, Charlie told lawmakers about an aunt, a Shelby County School teacher, who said his brother had been shot and tortured to death.

“She was threatened. She saw everything that happened, and her life was threatened as well as her job,” said Morris.

Rep. Johnnie Turner

Rep. Johnnie Turner

Dramatic stories like Charlie’s set the stage for a bill signed by Gov. Bill Haslam Wednesday, which sets up a special joint legislative committee to look into unsolved civil rights crimes and cold cases. Memphis lawmaker Johnnie Turner spearheaded the effort. “I have a lot of personal stories to tell about how I could have been an unsolved civil rights murder because of the situations I was in during the sit-in movements and even afterwards,” said Rep. Turner.

One of his family members also said he also saw what happened that day.

“We just figured it was something that was gone forever. Nothing would ever come of it. But I am pleased to see the outpouring and efforts put forward to at least bring this kind of thing to the surface,” said Sylvester Lewis, the victim’s cousin.

During committee this year, the man’s 97-year-old brother Charlie Morris traveled from Memphis to Nashville to testify.

Though Morris was too ill to attend the signing, other family members, and Rep. Turner were in Nashville this week to celebrate the signing.

Rep. Turner says the ceremony ends a long battle for her to bring justice to these victims.

“For years, I’ve tried to get this bill passed and bring closure to the remaining family members of slain African Americans,” Turner said. “It is my hope that this can be the first step to helping some of those families finally find some measure of peace.”

The first meeting of the special committee looking into old civil rights cases is expected when lawmakers come back in January. Along with Rep. Turner, Memphis lawmaker G.A. Hardaway worked on the bill that was 15 years in the making.