Books & Arts
Want to send this page or a link to a friend? Click on mail at the top of this window.
Posted August 22, 2005
nytlogo.gif (3067 bytes) ny weekinreview.gif (1173 bytes)

A Crescendoing Choir From the Graveyards of History

crescendoing photo.jpg (82418 bytes)

Jack Thornell/Associated Press 1964

Reckoning in the South Bettmann/Corbis1964 - Following the announcement that 20 men had been arrested in connection with the slayings in Mississippi, Dr. Martin Luther King called the arrests "first steps toward justice," and declared that the F.B.I. action renewed his faith in democracy. Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company A slide show on the civil rights cases






A fter a Mississippi grand jury indicted the 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen in January for the killings of three civil rights workers in 1964, his trial was described as the last in a series of reckonings over the unpunished wrongs of the era.

But just when the dredging up of the past was supposed to be ending, it seems to have begun in earnest. Prosecutors, politicians and the descendants of victims are digging at ever more obscure cases, calling for re-examinations even when the cases have been reviewed before, or when the prime suspects are long dead. A "racial 'Groundhog Day,' " the historian Michael Eric Dyson calls it, after the movie about a weatherman forced to relive the worst day of his life until he becomes a better person.

Since Mr. Killen's conviction in June, the United States attorney in Mississippi has announced that he will review the 1964 slayings of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, two young hitchhikers in Franklin County, and the fatal 1967 car bombing in Natchez of Wharlest Jackson, who had been promoted to a traditionally whites-only job.

In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush has ordered a review of the case of Johnnie Mae Chappell, a black maid killed in by four men in a drive-by shooting during a race riot in 1964, and the state attorney general, who hopes to succeed Mr. Bush as governor, has offered a $25,000 reward for information about the deaths of Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore, whose house was bombed in 1951 after Mr. Moore helped blacks register to vote. A bill in Congress would set aside money for investigations of old civil rights cases.

The focus on the past is not limited to the courts. It has included a lynching re-enactment and a Senate apology for failure to outlaw lynching, a posthumous pardon for a black woman executed after a one-day trial in 1944, Ku Klux Klan members speaking at a "truth and reconciliation" hearing and whites apologizing to blacks at a church service.

In all this activity, some who have followed the South's fumbling toward "atonement" see nothing less than a spiritual renewal - a nation mature enough, at last, to confront its sins with emphatic public action. But others see a noisy bandwagon whose latest passengers are seeking political or personal gain at little cost, because past injustices, these skeptics say, are easier and cheaper to address than present-day inequality.

Most agree that the prosecution of killers whose identity was an open secret has had a salutary effect. But with witnesses and suspects dying off, there are not likely to be any more successful prosecutions, said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which built a monument to civil rights martyrs in Montgomery, Ala. "The point of doing all of this is so that we as a society can move forward," Mr. Potok said. "And the time is really coming when we really are going to turn and face the future."

Many answers have been offered to the question "Why now?" These include the coming to power of whites who grew up in an integrated society, the election of blacks, witnesses' coming forward, an interested news media and the domino effect, as each successful prosecution or vindication leads to another. In the "Jesus-haunted" South, as Flannery O'Connor called it, some even suggest the timing has biblical overtones. "The Exodus story where they wander in the wilderness for 40 years before they're allowed to cross into the promised land, that resonates with people here," said Susan Glisson, director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.

For Ms. Glisson, who is regularly invited to help communities that want to address their racist past, the momentum generated by the Killen case is heartening. "It actually has spurred people to go deeper, and that's been inspiring to see," she said.

Yet the demand for justice has produced some confounding investigations, like that of the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Federal agents have gone so far as to exhume Mr. Till's body, even though the two presumed killers, who confessed to a magazine writer after they were acquitted, are long dead, and some experts say that the only potential suspects alive are people who may have been coerced into participating, including a black field hand and the wife of one killer.

The reckoning seekers of the civil-rights South draw believers and skeptics.

"Something like the Emmett Till case is an extremely easy way for the Justice Department, or a presidential administration, to claim that they are aggressively interested in civil rights, when something is so distant in time that no one could be offended," said David Garrow, the historian and author of "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference."

Such investigations are better left to historians, Mr. Garrow said, a view that the head of the F.B.I. in Mississippi reinforced when he agreed to turn the Till investigation files over to the National Archives. "Historians can weigh and consider far more evidence than can be put before a jury 35 years after the fact," Mr. Garrow said.

The vast majority of the racist crimes of the 50's and 60's will never see justice. Those that do have often benefited from the patient efforts of someone who came to be obsessed by the story. Lena Baker, the woman executed in Georgia, might have been forgotten had it not been for her grandnephew, Roosevelt Curry, and a man named John Cole Vodicka, who runs the Prison and Jail Project, a criminal justice watchdog group in southwestern Georgia. In a transcript

Mr. Cole Vodicka found of her 1944 trial, Ms. Baker explained to an all-white, all-male jury that she had killed her white employer in self-defense, after he imprisoned her and coerced her into sex. Mr. Cole Vodicka found her unmarked grave, and he and Mr. Curry held memorial services for her and requested a pardon. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has said it will grant one at the end of the month.

While the blatant injustice of Ms. Baker's case may never be repeated, Mr. Cole Vodicka sees it as connected to the work he does today. He cited the case of Denise Lockett, a black woman with an I.Q. of 62, who was charged with first-degree murder in the death of her newborn. But Ms. Lockett, pregnant at 16, was not even sure what was happening when her baby was born as she sat on the toilet, Mr. Cole Vodicka said. Still, her court-appointed lawyer encouraged her to plead guilty to manslaughter, Mr. Cole Vodicka said, even though a medical examiner said he could not conclude that the baby had been killed intentionally. Now she is serving a 20-year sentence.

"There's still things going on in southwest Georgia, particularly in the courts, that are not right, that are not just, that are still sometimes racially motivated," Mr. Cole Vodicka said. "And they're still being sent off to prison without their day in court."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Week in Review, of Sunday, August 21, 2005., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
More from
Main / Columns / Books And Arts / Miscellaneous