the past that can’t get uglier

According to CNN (rather than our paper of record, whose reporting I’ve found exceptionally poor lately), Louis Graham, DeKalb’s chief of police, is reopening four cases in the Missing and Murdered Children cases. The four murders in question, all of which took place in DeKalb, were declared closed after Wayne Williams was convicted of two other murders.

For those of you not familiar with this particular ugly stain on Atlanta history, a brief recap: a series of murders of young (ranging in age from 9 to early twenties) boys (and sometimes girls), all black, between July 1979 and late 1981. Practically everything about the series of murders — not just whodunit, but how many children were the victim of the serial killer and when the killing stopped — has been called into question over time. I believe “the list” (the official police count) is about 25-30 victims, though because the methods of death varied, some bodies were never found, and the late 1970s was not a good time to be a young black kid in the middle of Atlanta anyway, some people will put it lower, some higher.

You can find a rather enormous amount of documentation of the case in the FBI’s Electronic Reading Room, though a lot of it remains not for public consumption. Here’s a chronology that gives a brief overview, and the Wikipedia entry (feel free to edit it). If you really get interested, the two books you want to check out are The List, which if I recall correctly is heavily skeptical about the fingering of Williams, and Those Bones Are Not My Child, a lush novel about the murders by the late Toni Cade Bambara, which suggests that a Klan ring based out of Cobb County was responsible. (There’s also a James Baldwin work on the case, but it’s not Baldwin at his best by a long shot. Full disclosure: back when I was working for Atlanta Magazine I gave the Bambara book a positive review.)

To say Mr Graham, God bless him, has opened a nasty can of worms is something of an understatement: the Missing and Murdered Children case was one of the most serious blows the city has suffered since Sherman. It opened up the possibility that the black political elite, then just coming to dominate local politics — the killings started during Maynard Jackson’s second term as mayor — could not and would not protect the city’s black children. It helped solidify the image of downtown Atlanta as a dangerous, dirty, awful place where people stayed only if they were too poor or too stupid to get out — and even nine years after the Olympics you can see the negative effects of that image lingering. It helped to sour racial relations: Bambara’s not the only one who has put forward some variation of a theory that a white person or group did it, and Williams was made a patsy to prevent a race war. And then, of course, there’s the simple question of loss: the children murdered would be in their late 20s and early 30s now, quite possibly with children of their own.

It’s entirely possible the move to reopen the DeKalb cases is just a publicity stunt in the wake of “Cold Case”-style TV shows. It may not get anywhere; I’m not sure how much evidence remains for DNA testing and the like. I’m glad they are looking into the cases again, though. It’s too big and important a story to be brushed away.

1 Comment so far

  1. kendall (unregistered) on May 9th, 2005 @ 9:41 pm

    I was just about to write a post about this very same thing.

    It’s difficult to understand how Wayne Williams is labeled as the Atlanta Child Murderer…yet to my knowledge he was never charged, tried or convicted of ANY of the murders. Yet, the media is quick to refer to him as the Atlanta Child Murderer and what’s worse is the police and d.a. COMPLETELY closed the cases without prosecuting their #1 suspect. Why was/is that okay?

    I’m glad I’m not the only who is thinking wtf is really going on here?

    Hope something comes out of this …. I wonder what the Huff-ster has to say about this, Steve?

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