Civil Rights-era cold cases to be looked at by Tennessee lawmakers

Charlie F. Morris Sr. speaks in front of a senate committee in April 2017 (Courtesy: State of Tennessee)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Shedding more light on a difficult chapter in Tennessee history will soon be a reality, but Wednesday afternoon Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill setting up a special committee to look at cold cases from the Civil Rights era.

Several Tennessee African-American lawmakers from the Memphis area spent the last 15 years working to get the bill passed, but it may have been a 96-year-old man’s dramatic Capitol Hill testimony more than two months ago that set the stage the bill to come law.

Charlie F. Morris Sr. made the trek from West Tennessee to a state senate committee room to tell the story of his brother.

Authorities said Morris’ brother drowned in 1939, but sometimes in cases like that there was another story never told in public.

But what happened came out publicly for the first time in that committee room in early April.

Morris told lawmakers about an aunt, a Shelby County school teacher, who said his brother had been shot and tortured to death.

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

Dramatic stories like Morris’, and those of other African-Americans, resonated as the bill made a bipartisan journey through legislative committees this year.

Memphis lawmaker Johnnie Turner spearheaded the effort the effort that will set up a special legislative committee next January to investigate cold cases like Johnnie’s brother

“I have a lot of personal stories to tell about how it could have been an unsolved civil rights murder because of the situations I was in during the sit-in movements of the 1960s and even afterwards,” said Rep. Turner who was previously a longtime executive director of the Memphis NAACP.

Morris, now 97, could not make that trek on this day, but several of his family members did to the state capitol to see the bill signed.

His cousin Sylvester Lewis said he, too, saw what happened on that day his relative died in 1939.

“We just figured it was something that was gone forever, nothing would ever come of it,” Lewis told News 2 on Wednesday. “But I am pleased to see the outpouring and efforts put forward to at least bring this kind of thing to the surface.”

Along with Rep. Turner, Memphis lawmaker G.A. Hardaway was among those working on the bill.

The bipartisan effort in the state senate was led by Republican Majority Leader Mark Norris.

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