Race against time

While convicting Edgar Ray Killen was symbolically powerful, Mississippi has more work to do to overcome its past.

Published June 22, 2005 2:48PM (EDT)

The conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for the manslaughter of three civil rights workers has a symbolic significance that goes beyond the families of those who died 41 years ago. At stake was not just how Killen would spend his fading years, but whether Mississippi -- a state Martin Luther King Jr. described as "sweltering in injustice" in his "I Have a Dream" speech -- could, and should, address its segregationist past.

Over the past 30 years the American South, characterized by grainy footage of policemen with hoses and billy clubs beating schoolchildren and churchmen as they tried to vote, has sought to rebrand itself as a region that conquered its own history. For reasons ranging from social progress to foreign investment and local economic development, Southerners have been keen to show the world, including the rest of the United States, that they have dealt with their past.

This was apparent in the closing arguments of the trial, when both the prosecution and the defense let slip how far the verdict went beyond the guilt or innocence of one man. "When justice is done here, [the victims' families] will go back to New York or Oregon, or wherever they came from, give them the bad news, and we'll have to live with this trial," said the defense lawyer, James McIntyre.

Mark Duncan, the prosecuting district attorney countered: "There is only one question. Is a Neshoba County jury going to tell the rest of the world that we are not going to let Edgar Ray Killen get away with murder anymore? Not one day more."

Most of the evidence presented at the trial has been known for 40 years. "It wasn't like there was any one thing that happened that said, 'Here's the magic bullet,'" Duncan told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "It really was that we had gotten to the end. There was nothing to do."

But as the defendants and the witnesses got older, there was a fear that Killen might die and take Mississippi's reputation down with him. For some this was a race against time to show that the potency of race in the former Confederacy had been extinguished. Killen's manslaughter conviction, like the conviction of 22 others for civil-rights-era killings in the past 16 years, was part of a push to show that the goods, as well as the packaging, had changed.

At the Chamber of Commerce in the Mississippi town of Philadelphia 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.

"It's a captivating story," said Jim Prince, editor of the Neshoba Democrat, the local paper. "The dark of night, the Ku Klux Klan -- 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 because it's good for business."

The desire of many Southerners for a makeover is understandable, as is their irritation at the North's continued attempts to caricature them.

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, N.J. -- none of which is in the South. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, there are higher rates of black poverty in the Northern states of Wisconsin, Illinois and West Virginia than in Mississippi.

The only difference between the North and the South, wrote the late James Baldwin, was that "the north promised more. And [there was only] this similarity: what it promised it did not give and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other."

Nonetheless, if much has changed, much has remained the same. Indeed the Ku Klux Klan still marches in town every year, and during the Killen trial Harlan Majure, the mayor of Philadelphia during the 1990s, said he had no problem with the Klan. Majure told the jury the Klan "did a lot of good up here," and claimed that he was not personally aware of the organization's bloody past.

African-Americans in the state remain at a huge disadvantage. Infant mortality rates among blacks are twice as high, blacks' earnings are half as much as whites', and black people are three times as likely to live in poverty. The state has the lowest wages and highest infant mortality rates and poverty in the country.

Before the trial Leroy Clemons, head of the local chapter the NAACP, said it was time for the town of Philadelphia to move on and tackle the problems blighting the area today. "It doesn't matter where you go in the world: People talk about Mississippi; they think racists, backwards people. We want to show them the state has changed. I don't want to paint a picture free of racism; we still have issues. One thing about [the trial], it's forced us to deal with our past."

And Tuesday night Ben Chaney, the brother of one of the victims, James Chaney, a black Mississippian, thanked "the white people who walked up to me and said things are changing. I think there's hope."

By Gary Younge

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