FERRIDAY, La. In the spring of 1965, the FBI in Washington received a letter from Concordia Parish in northeastern Louisiana. Addressed to the bureau's director, J. Edgar Hoover, the letter pleaded for justice in the killing of a well-respected black merchant.
A few months earlier, the businessman, Frank Morris, had come upon two white men early one morning at the front of his shoe-repair shop, one pointing a shotgun at him, the other holding a canister of gas. A match was ignited, a conflagration begun, and Morris died four days later of his burns without naming the men, perhaps fearing retribution against his family.
The letter expressed grave concern that the crime would go unpunished because the local police were probably complicit. "Your office is our only hope so don't fail us," it concluded. It was signed: "Yours truly, The Colored People of Concordia Parish."
Nearly five decades later, the Justice Department has written back not directly to the family of Morris or to the black community of Concordia Parish, but to dozens of other families who lost loved ones during this country's tumultuous and violent civil rights era.
Several years ago, the FBI began reopening cold cases from that era 112 at last count raising hopes among some for justice. In all but about 20, though, the families of the long-dead have received letters, often hand-delivered by FBI agents, that say their cases have been closed, there is nothing more to be done and please accept our condolences.
Simultaneously intimate and bureaucratic, these letters serve as epistolary echoes of an increasingly distant time.
To some, they reflect the elusiveness of resolution in cases that are decades old; to others, they represent another missed opportunity for a full accounting of what happened, and why.
Grace Hall Miller, a retired school board member in Newton, Ga., received one of these letters two years ago. It recounted a day in March 1965 that she hardly could have forgotten, when a man named Cal Hall Jr. fatally shot her husband, Hosie Miller, a farmer and church deacon, in a dispute over cows. Hall, who was white, shot Miller, who was black, in the back.
The letter recalled the notorious travel of the case, from repeated failures by grand juries to indict Hall to a "disproportionately white" jury's finding against the Miller family in a wrongful-death lawsuit.
It also summed up what the FBI had done after reopening the case: interviews with Miller and a family friend, a check with the local sheriff's office and a search of county death records.
"After careful review of this incident, we have concluded that the now deceased Cal Hall Jr. acted alone when he shot and killed your husband, and therefore, we have no choice but to close our investigation," the letter said. "We regret that we cannot be of further assistance to you. Again, please accept our sincere condolences for the loss of your husband" a man who had died nearly a half-century earlier.
Miller, now 80, said that she had placed judgment in God's hands long ago, and could not understand why the FBI had reopened the case to give it only a cursory review. "I guess they were just trying to make a show," she said.
One of Miller's daughters is Shirley Sherrod, who was forced to resign from her job with the federal Agriculture Department in 2010 after a conservative blogger edited a video of a public appearance to make her appear racist.
The White House later apologized, and she was offered a new job.
In 2006, the FBI began a cold-case initiative that it described as a comprehensive effort to investigate racially motivated murders from the civil rights era. That effort became a mandate two years later when Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, named after the 14-year-old black boy who was tortured and killed in Mississippi in 1955, for supposedly flirting with a white woman.
The law authorized tens of millions of dollars for the project, but so far only $2.8 million has come through.
In addition, some critics say that the expansive list of cases compiled by the FBI ranging from the well-known to the more obscure, culled from old news clippings resulted in the quick closing of most cases and the draining of resources from the few cases in which a prosecution might have been achieved.
Families who held out hope for prosecution have been disappointed. In a report to Congress in October, the Justice Department acknowledged the low yield from what it always considered to be long-shot efforts to develop cases worthy of prosecution.
The report said the FBI's cold-case initiative had resulted in one successful federal prosecution, of James Ford Seale, who was convicted in 2007 in connection with the deaths of two young black men in 1964.
It also said the FBI had assisted in the 2010 state prosecution of a former Alabama trooper, James Bonard Fowler, in the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old civil rights marcher who died after a confrontation with the police in 1965.
Left unsaid in the report was that these prosecutions were prompted in large part by the work of investigative journalists.