52 Years Later, a ‘Quest for Justice’ for Murdered Civil Rights Pioneer Continues

Alberta Jones, Louisville’s first black prosecutor and a little-known civil rights figure, in a photograph provided by her sister, Flora Shanklin.

Alberta Jones is the civil rights pioneer almost no one knows. She was Louisville’s first black prosecutor and negotiated the first fight contract for Muhammad Ali, her neighbor. She registered thousands of African-American voters in the 1960s and paved the way for a ban on racial discrimination by local theaters and lunch counters.

One person who was astonished she had never heard of Ms. Jones was a professor named Lee Remington, who began research for a biography four years ago. The more Professor Remington learned, the more she became desperate to discover what no one has ever learned: who was responsible for Ms. Jones’s death in 1965, when, at 34, she was brutally beaten and thrown into the Ohio River to drown.

Poring over 1,600 pages of police files, Professor Remington, a lawyer and political scientist, shifted from mere history to what she calls “a quest for justice.” She laid out what she believed were overlooked clues to the murder in a long letter last year to the Louisville police, who agreed to reopen the case. The Justice Department’s civil rights division also stepped in.

But even with renewed interest in the case, it is unclear whether there is any real chance — 52 years after Ms. Jones died, when witnesses are deceased and evidence has vanished — of finding out who killed her and why.

“I believe her death was directly related to the work she was doing,” said Professor Remington, who teaches at Bellarmine University in Louisville. “If there was a list of people she would have stood up to and made mad, it would be five pages long.”

The Louisville Metro Police Department said this week that there have been few breakthroughs. “We still haven’t established enough probable cause to say one person or another did it,” Sgt. Nicholas Owen, the lead investigator, said.

Ms. Jones, who never married, is survived by a sister, Flora Shanklin, now 81. She believes earlier investigators ignored clues and buried evidence because of indifference to the murder of a prominent African-American, or because the killers were protected by the authorities.

Ms. Shanklin recalled her sister saying she was regularly hassled by a white court officer at work. One day Ms. Jones got frustrated, Ms. Shanklin said, and “hit him with her briefcase.”

Ms. Jones’s name is absent from the annals of civil rights martyrs of the 1960s, perhaps because there is no clear evidence that her death was racially or politically motivated. Louisville, on the dividing line between North and South, largely avoided the harshest violence of the era, like church bombings and the murder of civil rights workers by white supremacists, and today does not have the immediate resonance of, say, Birmingham, Ala.

Still, the city Ms. Jones returned to in 1959 after graduating from Howard University School of Law was deeply segregated. Blacks could not enter movie theaters or restaurants in the city’s commercial heart, Fourth Street, or try on clothes at department stores.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Trip Gabriel

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