Racism Rebooted

Racism Rebooted

Forty years after the now-famous murders of three civil rights workers, racism persists in Mississippi.


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.

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.

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.

Philadelphia is a small town of 7,300 that is just over half white, just under half black and the rest Choctaw Indian. It sits ninety-eight miles northeast of Jackson and sixty northwest of Meridian, but is actually on the road to nowhere. Ronald Reagan chose the town for his first major campaign speech in the 1980 presidential campaign–appealing to racist Confederate nostalgia with a call for states’ rights. Philadelphia’s grim racial history put it on the map. But the faded shop fronts and low income levels (one in four families lives in poverty) suggest its grim economic present could just as soon wipe it off again.

Discussing the situation in the days before the trial began, a few people, like Barney Shephard, spoke up for Killen and said that the Mississippi Freedom Summer was a federally backed incursion masterminded by President John F. Kennedy. “The guy has been a good neighbor to me,” he said of Killen. “He’s 80 years old. And now to bring this up, after forty years, is beyond me.” Few were as candid or as conspiratorial as Shephard. The rest of the town seemed to have settled on the notion that justice should be done. But they differed, crucially, on what justice actually means and what it could achieve. And like much else in the town, from where you live to where you worship, these differences fall almost exclusively along racial lines.

Over at Peggy’s, a soul food restaurant-cum-living room just off the town’s main square, you sit where you can, serve yourself when you’re ready and leave your money in a basket on your way out. Here the trial had gone from being a decades-long taboo to a frequent subject of debate. “For twenty or thirty years nobody really talked about it, and then boom,” said Anne, 24, a white waitress at Peggy’s. “Now everybody talks about it.” Anne grew up in Union, just fifteen miles away, but says she knew nothing about the murders until eight or nine months ago, when she saw the film Mississippi Burning, which is loosely based on the failed investigation into the murders. “It just about tore my heart out. If he did it, he deserves to be punished, that’s only right…. But I don’t think they should have brought it back up. It is going to cause more problems in town. A lot has changed since then. You didn’t see blacks and whites mingle then. You do now. This is a new generation. This could cause more problems.”

Hope Jones, a 25-year-old African-American teacher at the local school, is part of the same generation but could not disagree more. “We just want to see justice done,” she said. “If he’s innocent, fine, but we want whoever did it. This could turn ugly…. It could be a racial thing, but it’s not. White people should want justice done also.”

Along with the few local whites like Posey who have long campaigned for prosecutions in the case, several others have come around in recent years. Sitting under a huge picture of Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s visit to the Neshoba County Fair in the 1980s, Jim Prince, editor of the Neshoba Democrat, explained that he used to be against reopening the case but gradually came to see that the town could not move on without some resolution. Philadelphia would benefit, he said, because the trial would be the “outcome of doing the right thing. There would be some vindication, some redemption, some soul-cleansing. It will be the atonement, really, for this old sin. We have only got the legal system to go by. That’s all we’ve got.” And if there cannot be redemption, then Prince hopes there can at least be remuneration. “It’s a captivating story,” he says. “The dark of night, the Ku Klux Klan, you know, it’s got all the elements for great drama, but it’s a true story and it’s a sad story…. I tell people if they can’t be behind the call for justice because it’s the right thing to do–and that’s first and foremost–then they need to do it ’cause it’s good for business.”

For some in town, making money may be the first and only reason. At the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce you can find a glossy pamphlet titled “Neshoba County, African-American Heritage Driving Tour: Roots of Struggle, Rewards of Sacrifice.” Inside you are invited to join “a journey toward freedom,” complete with a map detailing where the three young men were murdered and buried. Such civil rights tourism would be a difficult sell as long as the perpetrators were still on the streets and everybody knew who they were. So Killen’s trial was part of the town’s business plan–a bid to capitalize on its ugly past in order to make money, at least in part, by showing how it has improved.

The desire of many Southerners for a makeover is understandable, as is their irritation at the North’s continued attempts to caricature them. The smug and superior manner in which the rest of the country has embalmed the region in the 1960s, so as to better patronize it, has echoes of Europeans on an anti-American binge. Like the Europeans, Northerners have a point–but without sufficient humility and self-awareness of their own shortcomings, that point can soon implode under the weight of its own arrogance. According to a census report from 2002, the top five residentially segregated metropolitan areas in the United States are Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis and Newark. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, you will find higher rates of black poverty in Wisconsin, Illinois and West Virginia than in Mississippi. And of the senators who refused to co-sponsor the anti-lynch-law apology, more than half were not from the South.

Mississippi shares the South’s desire for change, and indeed has changed considerably. Two huge casinos run by Choctaw Indians are now among the largest employers in the Philadelphia area. You can see black and white youngsters interacting casually at school, and a few black people have moved into white areas. But these changes have come about not because most white Southerners wanted them to but because many black people and a handful of whites forced them to. “I’m happy to see everybody joining forces to make sure that we get this done now,” says Eva Tisdale, 55, a native Mississippian who came to Philadelphia to participate in the Freedom Summer and stayed. Tisdale believes it is the business case, not the moral case, that has won over many of the whites who now back resolution of the legal case. “We organized marches and we marched and there were no white people marching–not from Philadelphia. So I know the reason we came together is not the same reason for all of us.”

For if a lot has changed in Mississippi, an awful lot has also stayed the same. In a state where African-Americans constitute 36 percent of the population, they make up about 75 percent of prisoners. In a state that is already poor, black people are poorer still: According to the latest census, Mississippi has the fifth-lowest median income in the United States; the per capita income of black Mississippians is 51 percent that of their white counterparts. If there are tougher places to be black than Mississippi it is because those places are so bad, not because Mississippi is so good. The problem is not that some whites are trying to rebrand the South but that they are now peddling false goods. “There’s a kind of civic religion in asserting that the past is the past and we should put all these problems behind us,” says Payne. “Some people are using the progress that has been made to wipe out any sense of the past, as though they have conquered the past. The extent to which these convictions can get people to think critically about how privilege is shaped is the extent to which they strike me as being real and useful.” Some would rather not acknowledge that racial privilege exists at all. “Race is not an issue now for younger people,” says Prince. “Today, if you’re willing to work hard and be honest, then you’re able to succeed. There is equal opportunity in Philadelphia.”

If Prince is right, then the poverty, low levels of educational achievement, unemployment and high prison rates among blacks not just in Philadelphia but elsewhere in the state and the country can be explained only by black people’s genetic inability or inherent unwillingness to seize those opportunities. And so it is that even as these trials seek to cure one symptom, the racist infection mutates into an even more hardy strain. Killen may end up behind bars, but the logic and the system that produced him and made him infamous still remains free.

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