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Time running out to solve grisly local cold case murder


Chances of solving death of Isadore Banks wither as any possible witnesses, suspects die

By Ralph Hardin

One of Crittenden County’s most gruesome and horrific crimes may go forever unsolved — not because of any lack of effort in recent years but because time is simply not on the side of those still hoping to bring the killers of Isadorw Banks to justice.

Banks, 59, at the time of his murder, was a World War I veteran, a businessman and landowner in Marion who helped bring electricity to the town and its surrounding area. A wealthy Black man, Banks was known to donate books and other materials to local schools. He also founded a cotton ginning business to support other Black farmers.

According to his wife, Banks left home to pay some farmworkers on June 4, 1954, and never returned. Four days later, his body was discovered shot and burned beyond recognition, chained to a tree.

An empty fuel can, a set of keys and some change lay near the corpse. Banks’ truck also was nearby, its ignition turned on and the battery dead.

This was 70 years ago today, and while there are still those in the Banks family and in the law enforcement community who are hoping someone will come forward or some new piece of evidence will present itself, the facts are that the chances of resolving the seven-decades-old case are slim as any potential witnesses are in their 90s or older and so much time has passed.

On June 8, 1954, a local farmer found Banks’ remains while searching a wooded area he said Banks often visited, according to a Department of Justice memo about the case. The memo also said Banks’ murder received substantial publicity due to its brutality and his standing in the community. Banks owned hundreds of acres of land, leasing much of it to tenants.

Rumors circulated about the motive. Some speculated that Banks had refused to sell land to white men, or that he had beaten a white man who courted his oldest daughter.

Others suggested he had angered white people in the area by having affairs, including with white women. Whatever the case, authorities said the murder likely involved more than one person, because Banks weighed nearly 300 pounds, and his body would have been difficult to move, The Chicago Defender reported in 1954.

Unhappy with how local law enforcement was handling the investigation, an NAACP lawyer from Arkansas contacted the FBI, according to a 1954 FBI memo to the Department of Justice. The FBI wrote that, at the time, it was not considering an investigation because “it did not appear that there was a violation of

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File photos BANKS

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the Federal Statute over which this Bureau had jurisdiction.”

Despite a $1,000 reward offered by local Black businessmen and citizens, the case went unsolved. In a report several months after the murder, the civil rights activist Robert L. Carter said that “terror and severe intimidation” had spread through the local Black community, exacerbated by the belief that others had been “marked for the Banks treatment.”

In a 2010 interview, Julian Fogleman, who was the Marion city attorney when Banks died, said there was scant local investigation because no one came forward with information.

Under the 2022 Emmett Till Antilynching Act (named after the Mississippi teen who was lynched in 1955, just months after Banks’s murder, the case remains open under federal hate crime law. The FBI initially opened an investigation into Banks’ death in 2007, based on media coverage of the decades-old case.

The FBI tried to obtain results from the local investigation but learned the files had been lost in a flood due to a sewer backup in the 1970s, according to the Crittenden County Sheriff’s Department. Likewise, in apparent accordance with federal records-keeping policy, the original FBI file had been destroyed in 1992.

The FBI interviewed law enforcement officers, as well as

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ment officers, as well as Banks’s relatives, but found that people who might have had direct information about the murder had since died.

“Despite extensive efforts, no subjects have been identified,” the Department of Justice wrote in a memo concerning the file. “Because of the destruction of the FBI and local investigative files, the lack of any known living witnesses, the various unsubstantiated theories of motive, including insufficient evidence that the victim’s death was in fact racially motivated, there is no reasonable possibility that further investigation will lead to a prosecutable case.”

In recent years, efforts have been made to highlight Banks’s case. In 2019, his name was among those added to the hanging monument as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

In 2010,ahead of Memorial Day that year, CNN produced a feature on the Banks murder, including interviews with his his surviving family.

The piece featured a full military funerary with a traditional three-shot volley salute and the playing of “Taps” at Marion Memorial Cemetery. The military honors were followed by the jubilant singing of 'Amazing Grace.' The service had been five decades in the making.

'This has been a long time coming,' said Marcelina Williams, a granddaughter who worked with the Army to arrange the ceremony after she found her grandfather's military records.

'Bless our country with freedom and righteousness.'

During the ceremony, Banks was described as “a pillar in the African-American community who 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 murder had a profound effect. Many Blacks left the county and never came back. For those who remained, the message was clear: If you were Black and acquired wealth, you knew your place.

While the murder remains unsolved, rumors at the time suggested “most everyone in Crittenden County's Black community had a hunch who was responsible.” And to this day, some elders still name names. Yet they say no investigators 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?

As a covey of doves were released, Willilams said, 'It was like I was watching my grandfather take his rest, his true final rest.'

Williams says she will not rest until her grandfather, gets justice.

Banks: A Giant of a Man

A ladies' man, he also was known to carry on several affairs. His heirs include children and grandchildren from those relationships.

At 22, Banks left his hometown of Marion to join the Army. As a young black man in the segregated South, he had been denied the rights and privileges of his white peers. Yet when his nation called, Banks responded.

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His first day in the service was June 15, 1918, in the final months of World War I. Records show his first payment was $71.30. It appears Banks was sent to Camp Pike, a massive complex near Little Rock where tens of thousands of soldiers with the 87th Division trained for battle. Blacks were kept separate from the white troops.

It's not clear from Banks' military records whether he deployed overseas. He received an honorable discharge on August 2, 1919.

After the war, Banks returned home and put his experience to work. In 1925, he was one of five men who brought electricity to this tiny Delta town. Working for a utility company out of Memphis, they dug holes with shovels and lifted the large wooden poles by hand. They strung up the wires and, within four months, Marion had power. Banks and his co-workers then brought power to nearby communities.

Along the way, Banks began buying land. He farmed cotton and helped form a blackowned cotton gin business in the 1940s to prevent white farmers from undermining the profits of black farmers. He also started a trucking company.

At one time, he owned as many as 1,000 acres in Crittenden County, according to newspaper accounts. Land deeds show Banks had at least 640 acres in 1947.

By 1954, word was out that people were after him.

There were three theories why, stories repeated by locals to this day:

• Banks had beaten up a white man who had courted his oldest daughter, Muriel.

• White men had made several offers on his land, but Banks refused to sell.

• Banks was involved with a white woman who rented her land to him, and whites were upset.

At one point, Banks fled to the home of John Gammon Jr., a close friend and head of the Negro Division of the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation. There, in the country outside Marion, he hid in Gammon's attic.

'The outer world was grim.

Racism was the prevailing social code of most whites in the area and most black families cautioned their children and tutored them well in the law which would preserve their species,' the late Gammon says in a family oral history. A mob of whites showed up at the home with dogs, locals say.

They failed to find Banks.

On June 4, 1954, Banks disappeared. Newspaper accounts said his wife, Alice Banks, told authorities he went to get money from the bank to pay his workers.

His body was not discovered for days. He was 59, a month away from celebrating his 60th birthday.

Today, anyone with any information about his death is urged to come forward.

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