Racism Rebooted | The Nation


Racism Rebooted

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The work that Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner aimed to do--break the hold of white supremacy--has yet to be completed. Those who hope it never will be would like to use these trials to draw a line under the past and move on, shifting the burden of racist history from the institutional to the individual and traveling light, without the baggage of its legacy. So long as the likes of Killen and Beckwith are held up as the poster boys of that time and place, the mission to rebrand the South as the region that conquered not just racism but history will succeed--distorting our understanding both of what happened then and also what is happening now.

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Gary Younge
Gary Younge, the Alfred Knobler Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the New York correspondent for the ...

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Schwerner's widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, hailed the verdict as "a day of great importance to all of us." But, she added, "Preacher Killen didn't act in a vacuum. The State of Mississippi was complicit in these crimes and all the crimes that occurred, and that has to be opened up."

This in no way diminishes the importance of insuring that those responsible for these crimes are brought to justice, argues Carolyn Goodman, the 89-year-old mother of Andrew. "[Killen] is a symbol. This is not just about one man. It's a symbol of what this country stands for. Whether it is a country of laws or something else, Bush or no Bush."

But the notion that these crimes had broad approval at almost every level of white Southern society does suggest that there is more to racism in the South than these murders and more to these murders than these trials. "The question is what do these symbols mean," says Charles Payne, the Sally Dalton Professor of History, African American Studies and Sociology at Duke University. The trials are convenient for those who wish to claim that racism was practiced only by the poor and ended with segregation, says Payne. "Some people will say this is the face of racism. So racism becomes a historically congealed phenomenon. It is understood as just being the expression of hateful, poor white people who live in the South."

The details of what took place on June 21, 1964, have long been known. Some in Philadelphia believe Killen's actions that night have been, too. The three young men, who had joined the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a civil rights initiative to register black voters in the state, went missing after they had gone to investigate the burning of a black church nearby. That afternoon Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price stopped their car near Philadelphia and took them in, ostensibly on a speeding violation. Price, who has since died, used the time while the activists were in custody to alert local Klan members. When they were released later that night the posse of Klansmen, said to have been organized by Killen, followed them, murdered them and buried them in a nearby earthen dam.

That night, says Posey, who had gotten to know Schwerner and publicly supported the activists, he got a phone call: "They said, 'We took care of three of your friends tonight. You're next' and hung up. Well, I thought it was Edgar Ray Killen, but you can't see over a telephone." He left town shortly afterward. "Hell, the Klan was boasting about it," he recalls. "If you didn't know who committed the murders, you were either blind or hard of hearing."

In 1967 eighteen men were prosecuted in federal court on conspiracy charges relating to the case; seven were convicted but none served longer than six years. Among those who walked free without a day behind bars was Killen, the beneficiary of a hung jury, thanks to one juror who could not bring herself to convict a preacher.

Since most of this was known or suspected at the time of the murders, there has been no particular legal breakthrough that prompted investigators to revisit the case. "It wasn't like there was any one thing that happened that said, 'Here's the magic bullet,'" Neshoba County District Attorney Mark Duncan told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in January, shortly after Killen was arrested. "It really was that we had gotten to the end. There was nothing left to do." Family members and civil rights activists were prompted to step up the pressure after Dahmer's murderer, Bowers, said in an interview with a state archivist in 1999 that "the main instigator" of the Philadelphia killings had walked free from the courtroom. Those familiar with the case say that at least seven others who were involved in the murders are still alive but not standing trial.

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