One of America’s unresolved civil rights cases has some calling for a renewed investigation.

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LIVE OAK, Fla. ... It is here, just where the water puddles and the sky opens, that Willie James Howard, perhaps the one black boy in town whom everybody believed had a shot at something good, was taken. Just 15, he was dragged from his home at gunpoint, hogtied and forced into the river on Jan. 2, 1944, by three white men for the cultural offense of having a crush on one of their daughters.

He was never seen alive again. But was he never forgotten in the black community, his death affecting the people of Live Oak in sometimes unexpected ways.

“We need what really happened to come out. Everybody needs to know the truth,” said Beasley, a former councilman who was elected as the first black to serve on the council since Reconstruction.

To appreciate the legacy of Willie James is to understand how three men — a cousin of the dead boy, a funeral director and a Miami historian — men without much in common beyond a deep sense of loss, have come to demand justice.

Eleven years before Emmett Till was lynched for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, an atrocity that helped launch the civil rights movement, the Willie James Howard story became a cautionary tale about what happens when blacks cross the line. Under the patina of good race relations, progress and Southern hospitality, the story, in all its layers, still resonates in this sawmill town.

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