I realized right away I could not do this by myself. I got great help from two Syracuse University law professors, Janis McDonald and Paula Johnson, who learned about the case from me when they were down here on something else. They dove in and did great work gathering records and finding people. I joined other journalists like Jerry Mitchell, David Ridgen, John Fleming, and Ben Greenberg to create the Civil Rights Cold Case Project under the Center for Investigative Reporting; those guys shared tips, documents, and ideas. I have gotten great interns from the journalism programs at lsu, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Alabama.

When you do something like this, you have a choice on how to present it to readers: you can do months and months of research without printing a word until you’re finished, or you can do it the way I did it. I didn’t know if this thing would ever have a conclusion, or if I’d find anybody alive who knew anything, so I kind of educated readers as I educated myself. I took it week by week and reported what I learned that week so that it would open people’s eyes as it did mine and help jar memories and maybe compel people to come forward.

That’s what happened. I wrote stories based on documents I was accumulating, and on calls I was making to old law enforcement guys and to family and friends of Morris, Jackson, and Edwards. I started getting calls. Some people didn’t know anything about what happened in these murders, but told stories about the people involved, and gave me background and insights. A huge break came when Leland Boyd, after hearing about and reading my stories online, called me from Texas and started telling me about his daddy. I knew about Earcel Boyd Sr. and had records on his activity in the Klan and his role in the Silver Dollar Group, a violent Klan offshoot.

Then I spoke with Leland’s brother Sonny, who was a teenager during that time and who had clear memories of what he saw and knew. It was amazing how open they were, and they had lots of wonderful knowledge, much of it eyewitness information from Klan meetings and Sunday fish fries with other Klan families, when the men would test explosives on tree stumps. They revealed the challenges of life inside their home, where their chores as teenagers included hauling bombs and bomb-making materials up to their attic. There were things about their daddy they hated and things they loved, and they were able to talk about it all. They were like rolling the calendar back to that time.
If I had just built up research and hadn’t written anything for months at a time, Rosa Williams and Leland Boyd would not have picked up the phone to call me. Every article I wrote presented something new or clarified something. Doing it that way also put me in touch with my readers’ attitudes, both good and bad. The newspaper sold well every time I wrote those stories, and the website got busier. But I also encountered hostility. I’d have people tell me, “You’re stirring up these old hatreds,” or “Why’re you doing this?” and “I think it’s terrible you’re doing this.” I’m sure my owners, the Hannas, the widow and children of the late Sam Hanna Sr., heard the same thing, but they stood by me the whole way. They trusted me enough to let me go.

Hank Klibanoff is the James M. Cox Professor of Journalism at Emory University. In 2007, he won the Pulitzer Prize for history for The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, which he co-authored with Gene Roberts.