Federal Probe Sought in 1946 Killing of Black Veteran From Georgia

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Maceo Snipes served in the Pacific during World War II and returned home to make history: He became the first black person to vote in Taylor County.

But a day after casting his ballot, he was mortally wounded.

Relatives say the 37-year-old was shot in the back by four white men in 1946 and collapsed in the doorway of his farm house about 90 miles south of Atlanta. He died two days later.

Even though his death certificate lists his cause of death as "gunshot wound by homicide," there's no evidence of a criminal investigation into the killing and no one was arrested.

Now, two civil rights groups are pushing to have the 60-year-old unsolved killing investigated.

State NAACP officials and the Prison & Jail Project, a prison advocacy and civil rights group, plan to present their request for a federal probe to the Taylor County Commission on Tuesday and ask the commissioners to support the effort before mailing their written request to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

"What better way for the county commission to show their support for justice than by joining this initiative," said NAACP President Edward DuBose of nearby Columbus, himself a 21-year Army veteran.

Snipes was shot on July 18, 1946, a day after he voted in the Georgia Democratic Primary. He died on July 20. Fearful relatives buried him at night in an unmarked grave before some family members fled the county, relocating as far north as Ohio. Survivors say they still don't know the location of Snipes' grave.

"It wrecked our family for a long time," said the dead man's 66-year-old cousin, Felix Snipes, who was 6 at the time. "The older generation still doesn't want to talk about it."

The killing was overshadowed by the lynchings five days later of two black couples — also including a WWII veteran — some 90 miles away near Monroe that prompted President Harry Truman to dispatch the FBI to investigate that case, which also remains unsolved.

John Cole Vodicka, head of the Prison & Jail Project, said he has studied the Snipes case and interviewed older residents about the crime. He's convinced that Snipes was killed for simply voting.

"He managed to escape being hurt or killed ... fighting for his country, but when he came home and dared to exercise a right that he had fought to defend, he was killed by citizens of his own country," Vodicka said.

It was rumored that Snipes pulled a knife on his attackers, an allegation his relatives deny.

"One of the real tragedies of this case, in addition to a man being killed because of his skin color, is that the victim is falsely accused of doing something to bring on his demise," Vodicka said.

"As far as we know, all the suspects that were involved are dead," he added. "But we want the truth of what happened. That simply means we want those responsible for his murder named, and we want Maceo Snipes' name cleared."

A coroner's inquest was conducted to determine the cause of Snipes' death, but the case was never presented to a grand jury or a prosecutor, Vodicka said.

Gary Lowe, the county's current coroner, said he had never heard of the Snipes case and that the sheriff and coroner who served at that time had both died.

The current prosecutor, District Attorney Gray Conger of Columbus and Taylor County Sheriff Jeff Watson were away from their offices Monday and not available for comment. A secretary in the sheriff's office said it's unlikely they still have investigative reports from the 1940s.

The county's five commissioners, which include two black members, also were not available for comment Tuesday.

"I want somebody held accountable for killing my uncle," said Lulu Montfort, 73, who was 13 when her cousin was killed. "They're probably all dead now, but people need to know that my uncle didn't do anything to deserve death."

After the murder, frightened family members loaded her and her brothers and sisters into the rear of a pickup truck, covered them with a tarpaulin and whisked them away 45 miles to Macon, where some caught a train to Ohio, she said.

"Every person in the state of Georgia needs to know that somebody died for that right to vote — a right we take for granted," she said.