Tribute to Isadore Banks

In June 1954, Isadore Banks, an African-American veteran of World War I, was chained to a tree, doused in gasoline, and burned alive beyond recognition. Now the traditional three-shot volley salute and the solemn sound of taps echoed across the black cemetery in the Delta flatlands of Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tennessee, in his honour. Banks’ slaying, a year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to whites on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, remains one of the nation’s oldest unsolved civil rights cases.

A pillar in the African-American community, Isadore Banks helped bring electricity to the town of Marion in the 1920s and became one of the wealthiest black landowners in a region with a long history of racial violence. His killing had a profound effect. Many blacks left and never came back. For those who remained, the message was clear: If you were black and acquired wealth, you knew your place.

The odd part is that Banks’ case has not even been through a preliminary cold case re-investigation. You can read about preliminary cold case re-investigations here. Some senior citizens have a hunch about the people responsible for Banks’ slaying but till date, no investigators have ever interviewed them. The questions linger: Why was no one ever charged? What happened to his hundreds of acres of land? Why did the FBI destroy his case file?

On October 19, 1992, the FBI destroyed the Isadore Banks’ case file. It most likely included records, interviews, photographs, and any correspondence between the field office and FBI headquarters. Everything you would need to start a re-investigation, is now gone.  “It was destroyed according to standard Records Retention and Disposition,”  FBI spokesman Chris Allen said. “This policy is not set by the FBI, but by the National Archives and Records Administration.”

The killing of Isadore Banks was among the 108 priority cases identified by the Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative. Launched by the FBI in 2006, the investigations are a final push to try to solve racially motivated crimes from the 1950s and 1960s. The Justice Department last month said it has closed eight cases and is in the process of closing 18 others, pending notification of family members. Three cold cases were referred to state prosecution in the last four years. But the Banks’ case is not among them anymore!

The Crime

By 1954, word was out that people were after Isadore Banks. There are several theories why and the stories are repeated by locals to this day. Either Banks was killed by whites who were anxious to get hold of his property or Banks had been involved with several possibly white girls, and had incurred the anger of a white man who was interested in one of the girls.

On June 4, 1954, Banks disappeared. His body was not discovered for days. He was 59, a month away from celebrating his 60th birthday. His body was found about 50 feet from his parked truck. An empty gasoline container sat next to his charred remains. His body was wrapped in cloth from head to knees. Only his shoes were identifiable. A reward of $1,000 was offered by local blacks for information leading to an arrest and conviction. Locals say three black men may have lured Banks to a group of whites…

I repeat what I stated in my post I don’t know what is going on anymore...” that some files are worth preserving and studying. If the FBI is continuing to investigate cold cases from the Civil Rights Era, I’d like to encourage them to pick up Banks’ case again.