For Buford Posey, a white man raised in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the Second World War had a civilizing influence. “When I was coming up in Mississippi I never knew it was against the law to kill a black man,” he says. “I learned that when I went in the Army. I was 17 years old. When they told me, I thought they were joking.”
For several decades Posey’s assumption about the relative value of black life was effectively borne out by the state’s judiciary. Among others, the murders of 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till, in Money in 1955; the state’s NAACP chairman Medgar Evers, in Jackson in 1963; the three young civil rights workers–James Chaney (21), Andrew Goodman (20) and Michael Schwerner (24)–in Philadelphia in 1964; and civil rights supporter Vernon Dahmer, in Hattiesburg in 1966 all went unpunished.
But recently history has been catching up with the Magnolia State. Over the past decade state authorities have been picking up aging white men one by one and parading them down history’s perp walk of shame, complete with orange jumpsuits and handcuffs.
Mississippi is by no means alone in this. Since 1989 twenty-three murders have been re-examined in the South, resulting in twenty-seven arrests, twenty-one convictions (now twenty-two), two acquittals and one mistrial, according to Mark Potok of the Intelligence Project, a branch of the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Alabama. But given that Mississippi was home to some of the most notorious race crimes during segregation, it stands to reason that it would be home to many of the most high-profile cases. In 1990 69-year-old Byron de la Beckwith was indicted for the murder of Evers, who was shot dead on his doorstep; four years later Beckwith was convicted. In 1997 the case of Dahmer, who died when his house was firebombed by the Klan, was reopened. In 1998 the Klan’s Imperial Wizard, Sam Bowers, was convicted of the murder. And earlier this year Edgar Ray Killen was formally charged with the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. His trial ended on June 21 with a jury verdict of manslaughter.
These developments should, of course, be welcomed. Beyond the importance of the prosecutions to the families of those who died and the communities in which the murders took place, they have a broader symbolic significance. They show that the struggle for justice, while long and arduous, can bear fruit in the most barren soil. They also show that these men, along with the scores of others who perished in the same cause, did not die in vain.
But while symbols are important, they should not be mistaken for substance. In June the Senate issued an apology for its failure to enact an anti-lynching law. Its chief GOP sponsor was Virginia Senator George Allen, who referred to the legislative inaction as a “stain on the history of the United States Senate.” Allen, who used to display a Confederate flag at his home and a noose in his law office, scored an F on the NAACP’s report card in the last session of Congress. Both Mississippi senators, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, refused to co-sponsor the resolution.
So while the crimes that occurred during segregation were rarely systematic–the individuals who carried them out and the manner in which they carried them out were far too crude for that–they were systemic. They were born from a system of segregation that worked to preserve white privilege in the face of a concerted progressive onslaught–a system in which the white community had to collude in order for it to function. While the scale and nature of those privileges may have changed, the privileges themselves still exist. You can see them in the racial disparities in health, employment and poverty; you can watch their physical incarnation in the segregated academies to which so many whites send their children; and you can observe them on death row, where so many black parents see their children being sent.