50-year-old FBI files shed light on Iowa man's police brutality case

National Archives releases more than 100 pages in 1964 case

Published: March 29 2014 | 7:00 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:18 am in

The National Archives released last week more than 100 pages of Federal Bureau of Investigation documents and photos connected to 1964 police brutality allegations by a civil rights worker from Marion.

University of Iowa archivist David McCartney has been retracing the story of Stephen L. Smith, a UI student from Marion, who in 1965 burned his draft card on campus becoming one of the first in the nation to do so after it became illegal. Smith died in 2009 after an extended illness.

On April 26, 2013, McCartney used the Freedom of Information Act to request all FBI files related to Smith from 1962 through 1990. After redirecting his request to the National Archives in May, McCartney received responsive files on Tuesday, and he shared the documents with The Gazette.

While the FOIA request spanned more than 25 years, the only files provided were connected to Smith's arrest and claims of police brutality from an incident on July 15, 1964 in Canton, Miss.

Smith was a volunteer for the Mississippi Voter Project that summer, during the height of the civil rights movement.

"I think the files confirm for us the grave challenges that civil rights workers and local residents faced during that time," McCartney said. "We may have already known the essential facts of this particular case, but the records detail out the gravity of that time."

According to the documents, Smith, who was white, was traveling in a 1/2 ton pick-up truck with three black males, Eric Morton, a college student from Detroit; Melvin Roy McDavis, a high school student from Las Vegas; and Robert Joe Ellis, a high school student from Jackson, Miss. on the night of July 15. Their ages were redacted from the documents.

All four made sworn statement to FBI special agents, who investigated the case. The statements were included in the documents provided by the National Archives.

The four were transporting voter registration material from Jackson, Miss. to Greenville, Miss., and they were pulled over by authorities twice that night.

Jackson Police first stopped and cited Smith for not having a commercial drivers license. The trip resumed and shortly after the vehicle was stopped again in Canton, Miss.

Three to four vehicles with law enforcement officers from Mississippi State Patrol and Madison County Sheriff's Department arrived on scene and had the four exit the vehicle, according to the statements.

Morton stated officers "shouldered" him and Smith, and stepped on their feet as they stood in a line. One officer kicked one of the two high school students in the back as they exited the truck, Morton said. The two younger boys were instructed to leave the scene on foot, which they did.

Smith was put in a squad car and pistol whipped five to six times in the head.

"(One officer) questioned us as to why we were in Mississippi and told us it was dangerous for us to remain in this state as we were causing trouble," Morton stated. "I told him we were not here to agitate or demonstrate but to educate the colored people and to aid them politically."

The files include descriptions and pictures of Smith's injuries, which were characterized as severe by some and minor by others.

Several news outlets reported about Smith's claims at the time.

While the documents offer some new details on this case and shed light on a tumultuous time, they are inconclusive.

The files show the FBI conducted an investigation into the claims, but the officers and deputies involved refused interviews by the FBI agents.

According to the documents, the last filing on the case was submitted on Nov. 30, 1964. It included a note that the file had been submitted by the FBI to the assistant attorney general of the United States Civil Rights Division, and no further investigation would be completed unless requested.

According to Smith's wife Barbara Smith, who still lives in Marion, he had nightmares about the incident even after he lost his cognitive ability due to a heart attack in 2000.

"I got as far as Steve's statement, but I put it away because I was already had anger at how they treated those people," Smith said last week. "It was almost like being right there."

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