Cold case: The murder of Louis Allen

Steve Kroft investigates the civil rights era killing of Louis Allen in a Mississippi town

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Five years ago, the FBI announced that it was reopening more than 100 unsolved murder cases from the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s. The goal of the "Cold Case Initiative" was to try and mete out justice in what seemed to be racially motivated killings that were never prosecuted.

Not many 50-year-old cold cases ever get solved - memories fade, evidence is lost, witnesses and suspects die or disappear. But that's not the case in the death of Louis allen, a mostly forgotten, but historically significant murder that helped bring thousands of white college students to Mississippi in the Freedom Summer of 1964.

Reporting on an unsolved murder
Forty seven years after the murder of Louis Allen, "60 Minutes" goes to Liberty, Miss. in search of his killer.

The murder is still unsolved, but the case has never quite gone away, because the chief suspect is very much alive and walking the streets of a town called Liberty.

Liberty, Miss. is a small rural logging town not far from the Louisiana border. The FBI believes that some people there have been keeping a dark secret for nearly 50 years, from one of the ugliest periods in the state's history.

It was a time when civil rights activists were beaten and arrested, when state, and local politics were controlled by all-white citizens' councils, and when people like Louis Allen were murdered in cold blood and without redress.

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Cynthia Deitle, a 15-year veteran of the FBI's civil rights division, was, until a few weeks ago, in charge of the Cold Case Initiative. She keeps a photo of Allen on her desk.

Asked why, she told "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft, "The case bothers me. I feel like we failed, and not just the FBI, but law enforcement."

Of the 100 unsolved racially motivated murders she has been charged with investigating, none has been more promising or frustrating than Allen's.

"Somebody knows something. Some husband came home with bloody clothing. Someone got drunk in a bar and said what he was doing last night. Someone knows something," Deitle said.

But in the early 1960s, people in and around Liberty knew to keep their mouths shut. A violent chapter of the Ku Klux Klan used cross burnings, abductions and murder to enforce the doctrine of white supremacy and to intimidate the black population, most of which lived in shacks with no electricity or plumbing, and were not allowed to vote.

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Civil rights leaders like Robert Moses, who came south to help them register, were frequently the target of violence.

"Liberty was not a place that I liked to go," Moses remembered.

Asked why, he told Kroft, "Because it was a place where you weren't safe if you were doing voter registration work."

It was in Liberty that Moses met Louis Allen, a rough-hewn World War II veteran who walked proud and was not afraid to stand up for himself. He ran a small timber business, was one of the few blacks in Liberty to own his own land, and always wore a hat, which he considered a sign of self-respect.

He was not the type to seek out trouble - Robert Moses says it found him.

"He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. He saw something that happened and he was deeply disturbed and affected by that. And so he had a basic life decision to make," Moses explained.

On Sept. 25, 1961, Allen was walking past an old cotton gin when he saw something that likely got him killed.

Produced by Graham Messick and Sumi Aggarwal