Monday 23 June 2014

Meridian Solstice

Andrew Goodman [L], and Mickey Schwerner [R] were well-to-do Jewish boys from New York, and they absorbed the liberal ethos of their caste.  In a different time they would have gone off with the Peace Corps and taught English to black children in Malawi.  But they came to maturity in the Kennedy years when it seemed possible that the manifest unfairness of their own society could be done away with. In the Summer of 1964 they joined CORE the Congress of Racial Equality and tooled off to Meridian, Mississippi with their eyes all shining to help black people register for the vote. They hooked up with a local boy "J.E." Chaney [C], and were assigned by CORE to set up a "freedom school" at a black Methodist church in Neshoba County. After they left, the parishioners were beaten with rifle-butts and had their church burned to the ground.  Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman returned to Neshoba county to investigate and were quickly arrested by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price for 'speeding', taken to the County jail, fined $20 and told to leave the county and never come back. They left, but not before the Deputy had grassed them up to his friends in the Ku Klux Klan. At the county border, the boys were stopped again, transferred to the Deputy's car, and driven off into the deep boondocks.  The white boys were given the dignity of being shot at point blank range; Chaney was beaten to bloody pulp first.  His sin being greater because he should have known better . . . and he was black so was a fair target for any redneck hero.

In the Summer of 1955, Emmett Till, a 14 year old black kid from Chicago was visiting his hick relatives in Money, Mississippi. Like the New Yorkers after him, he didn't know The Rules either and out of bravado to show up his cousins as spineless wimps he flirted with a young white women who ran a local store.  The evidence is equivocal about how far he actually went, but it was too far for the woman's husband and his half-brother.  They appeared in Till's bedroom that night, took him off to the barn, duffed him up real good, gouged out one eye and then shot him. They then used barbed wire to wrap a 30kg weight round his neck and dumped the body in the Tallahatchie River.  The perps were exonerated by an all white, all male jury of their peers: presumably people who thought that kind of behaviour was acceptable.  I touched yesterday on the banality of evil, and maybe some of those jurors were outraged, but as our own Edmund Burke said "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing".  Because he was only fourteen, Emmett Till's torture, mutilation and murder caused a huge stir.  It helped that Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, having been acquitted, under double jeopardy bragged to Look magazine that they were indeed responsible for the outrage.  William "Nobel 1949" Faulkner, from up the road in Oxford Miss., said " Because if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t."

Meanwhile back to 1964: the trio of CORE activists had simply disappeared.  The community closed ranks and two carloads of Klansmen relaxed into the status quo ante. Up in Washington, it was just not good enough for President Johnston who had inherited the mantel after John F. Kennedy had been assassinated the previous November.  He said he was going to flood central Mississippi with Feds until they discovered a) the bodies and b) who was responsible for their deaths.  It took them 44 days and a tip-off, but eventually the bodies were unearthed from the base of a dam near where the boys were killed.  In the course of their investigations, the FBI found a further nine unaccounted corpses - all black. The strong sense was that nothing much would have happened unless two middle class white men were involved.  A bunch of people, including Deputy Price, were tried for civil rights violations because the State of Mississippi declined to try for a murder rap.  Price was found guilty and sentenced to 6 years in prison - he served 4 and a half. Six other men including the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights were also found guilty. The mastermind of the murder was a Baptist minister called Edgar Killen; he was not convicted because a single juror stoutly refused to convict a Preacher. We've seen numerous examples since that should convince any sane person that preachers are not incapable of doing wrong.

A lot of what we know now about these cases stems from the dogged pursuit of the truth by a journalist called Jerry Mitchell.  He blogs away about the history of civil rights.  Five years ago, he was awarded a prestigious MacArthur 'Genius' grant to pursue his investigations.  By embedding himself in the data, Mitchell has deduced who was the insider who told the FBI where the bodies were buried.  So there was at least one man who wasn't silent.  I think that's my bottom line: evil hasn't petered out over the last 50 years and we need to have someone to look to when there is an option to do the right thing when it is the difficult thing.

Because justice delayed is justice denied, I'm less thrilled by the eventual conviction of Preacher Killen in 2005, 41 years after he organised the witch-hunt that killed the young men during Freedom Summer.  The case against him was steadily built up by Jerry Mitchell, with help from Allison Nichols, Brittany Saltiel & Sarah Siegel high-school project students. Killen was brought to trial at the age of 80, long after key witnesses were dead and those who survived had had decades to relive and rehearse their contribution to the story. Killen's conviction is the mirror of the apologies for unjust punishments (Guildford Four, Alan Turing) years after the event and offered by people who were in no sense responsible for the original injustice. It's easy to dismiss Killen as a horrible old racist who is finally getting his comeuppance but we can better spend time looking at the ugliness, inadequacy and injustice in our own times and our own hearts.

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