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Students research civil rights deaths
Emory University students delve into cold cases
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ATLANTA — A black man shot while driving back to his Washington, D.C. home after attending an Army Reserve camp.
    A white doctor who diagnosed a black man as drunk after his family said police hit him with a pistol.
    A black man beaten by police inside a jailhouse after insulting white officers.
    Professors at Emory University hope the three cases are just the start of an effort to uncover and understand deaths tied to race during the civil-rights era. Since 2011, students at the Atlanta university have pored through federal files, interviewed witnesses and dug into the Jim Crow policies they believe contributed to the deaths of Lemuel Penn, James Brazier and Clarence Pickett.
    The course instructors, Hank Klibanoff and Brett Gadsden, think a new website launched this month featuring the students' research will open new leads and encourage people to submit other cases to the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Case project.
    The project isn't focused on 'solving' the crimes. Klibanoff said perpetrators are often named in FBI files and other records though prosecutions or convictions were rare. Instead, students concentrated on the role of society, government and other factors.
    Sonam Vashi, a senior who took the course in 2013, said the finished student reports give the victims a voice.
    "The focus is to provide a sense of social justice for the people who were murdered," she said.
    Still, students felt the closeness and raw emotion wrapped up in the deaths while interviewing living witnesses to the crimes.
    "These are cases people live with every single day of their lives," said Nathaniel Meyersohn, a senior who took the course last year and continued his own research over the summer. "This is not ancient history."
    A broader project is tackling similar killings across the South and collected FBI, NAACP and other files documenting the crimes, investigations and reaction from state and federal authorities.
    This fall's class took on an added relevance as protests and a national debate erupted after the police killings of unarmed black men in Missouri, New York and other states. Gadsden said students didn't draw direct lines from the deaths of Brazier or Pickett to the deaths of Michael Brown or Eric Garner. But they often discussed the modern cases and glimpsed common themes, including the issues facing prosecutors investigating law enforcement.
    "The message is not that history repeats itself, but here are the analytical tools you need to examine these scenarios," Gadsden said.

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