On August 5, 1965, police pulled a body from the Ohio River, not far from the Sherman Minton Bridge between Kentucky and Indiana. The body belonged to attorney and civil rights icon Alberta Odell Jones. She had been struck several times in the head with a brick and then thrown unconscious into the river, where she drowned. Her murder remains unsolved.
Though only 34 years old at the time of her death, Jones was already a renowned civil rights activist, taking part in numerous protests, including the March on Washington in 1963. She was a member of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, where she encouraged voter enfranchisement by renting voting machines and using them to teach Black voters how to cast their ballots.
Alberta Odell Jones' early life and activism
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, she graduated fourth in her class from Howard University School of Law and practiced as an attorney for her entire adult life, becoming the first female prosecutor in Louisville. One of her earliest clients was the boxer then known as Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammed Ali. In fact, Jones introduced Ali (then Clay) to his trainer, Archie Moore, and negotiated the contract for his first fight.
While her work and activism made Jones a hero to many, it didn’t always make her a lot of friends, and obviously someone had it out for her on that August night in 1965. According to Jones’ mother, the 34-year-old attorney had gone to see a friend about a lawsuit on the night of her murder, and never returned home. Witnesses later reported seeing three men throwing something that could have been a body from the Sherman Minto Bridge that night, but no one was ever charged.
The murder of Alberta Odell Jones
Indeed, police were slow to even identify Jones’ death as a murder. It was only when her rental car was found several blocks away with blood on the interior that an investigation into her fate began, and even then, its lack of progress makes it seem like the case was never treated with a lot of urgency. In fact, her purse was not found hanging from the bridge until a full three years later, by which point the trail had already long since gone cold.
“Because things were still so segregated in Louisville then,” Jones’ sister told The Washington Post decades later, “I believe, if she had been a white woman prosecutor, they would have turned over heaven and hell to solve this. But she was black. They didn’t do anything about it.” As a matter of fact, subsequent investigations have suggested that the police may have actually worked to obscure the possible resolution of the case, going so far as to tell Jones’ family that potential witnesses were dead when they were, in fact, alive.
Attempts to reopen Jones' cold case
Over the years since, a few attempts have been made to reopen the case. In 2008, fingerprints found inside Jones’ rental car were matched to a man who was 17 years old at the time of Jones’ murder. According to a police report, the individual was brought in and submitted to a polygraph test, during which it was revealed that “deception was indicated […] regarding the circumstances surrounding the murder of Alberta Jones.”
However, prosecutors declined to pursue the case further, citing the deaths of original investigators and key witnesses, some of whom subsequently turned out to actually still be alive. “A tremendous amount of evidence was collected in this case,” Lee Remington, an associate professor of political science at Bellarmine University, who heavily researched the Jones case in preparation for a book project, told The Washington Post. “The evidence is now missing. Misplaced? Lost? Thrown away? Destroyed? Where did it go?”
Remington’s investigations were instrumental in the case being brought back to national attention in 2017, when funds from the 2007 Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act were put toward new investigations by the Louisville Police and the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. Remington interviewed detectives who were involved in the original investigation and sent letters to the Louisville Police Department in the hopes of putting the case back on their radar, though Sergeant Josh Carr of the Louisville homicide unit told The Washington Post that the case was never closed.
Production begins on the docuseries Murder of a Trailblazer
“Over 50 plus years, that case has been worked by multiple detectives,” Carr told the Post. “There are detectives who have worked tirelessly on that case. The case is not closed.” Still, solving a case more than half-a-century cold is no small order, and as of now, no further details have been released about the status of Jones’ murder and those who might have been responsible.
Recently, production began on the docuseries Murder of a Trailblazer, which is intended to chronicle not just Jones’ murder, but the details of her extraordinary life. Produced and directed by Keenan Conigland and Maggie D. Hickman, the series includes interviews with more than 35 experts and other voices involved in the case, from civil rights leaders to clinical pathologists.
“The greatest tribute we can pay to Alberta Jones is to capture and pass on her legacy,” the documentary’s website states. “While the numbers familiar with her are growing, far greater numbers remain unaware of her importance in the areas of law, civil rights and women’s political activism.”
Will the series help to shed any light on Jones’ fate or the identity of her killers? Only time will tell, but whether Jones’ murder remains unsolved or her slayers are brought to light, documentaries like this will ensure that her legacy lives on, and hopefully help to prevent such travesties of justice in the future.
In the meantime, those dedicated to the memory of Alberta Odell Jones continue to work to see that her case remains in the public eye, so that the truth about what happened to her on that August night nearly sixty years ago may someday be found.