Tuesday, June 21, 2005

History on trial

Today is the 41st anniversary of the disappearance of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. The jury in Edgar Ray Killen's trial will go into a second day of deliberations today, after ending up yesterday split down the middle.

There can't be anything easy about the trial of a murder that's 41 years cold. I'm not offering an opinion on the evidence. But even from this remove of time and space it's hard to miss the familiar rhetorical patterns coming out of that Mississippi courtroom.

Recalling that the dead men consisted of one local black and two Yankee Jews, at the outset the district attorney asked the jury one thing: "Tell me you'll treat them like they were from here and were our neighbors." (Tell me you'll forget, for the moment, your resentment of "outside agitators.")

Don't you dare forget it, says defense attorney James McIntyre, speaking in well-recognized code: the trial "has done nothing but agitate the state of Mississippi."

The prosecution emphasized to the jury that their verdict would be a judgment not just on the defendant but also on Neshoba County and Mississippi itself: "Is the 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 any more?" (The source here, which may require registration, is a South African publication. How many hundreds of reporters are covering this trial, I wonder, and from how far have they come.) The defense attorney in turn, and rightly, reminded the jury that only one man is on trial--but also tried hard to dissociate his client from the KKK: "He's not charged with being a member of the Klan, he's charged with murder." Besides, according to a defense witness, former mayor Harlan Majure, the Klan "did a lot of good too. As far as I know, they're a peaceful organization."

It's this kind of doublespeak that accounts, surely, for the "underlying current of fear" felt by Ben Chaney, James Chaney's brother. "Forty-one years is not a long time," he observes.

One of the most persistent tropes goes something like this: Everything is fine in the South, or was, until you good but meddlesome folks tried to mess with it. We know "our nigrahs" and we know what they need. If you find Mr. Killen guilty, you are only going to cause trouble down here, trouble we don't need. Everying is fine. Leave it alone. Leave us in peace. Defense attorney McIntyre: "This is a complete distraction for the citizens of the state of Mississippi. Is this going to help the cultural differences again? This old crime is not a threat to the state of Mississippi."

It reminded me, sadly, of a response I got not quite a year ago to a speech I made on the Airport Road-MLK Blvd. issue: Not the same stakes, certainly, but the same argument, the same indulgence in a "negative peace."

It reminded me of Dan Carter's story from the Alabama Supreme Court archives when he was researching the Scottsboro case for his dissertation.

It reminded me of Erskine Caldwell's In Search of Bisco (1965). Bisco was his childhood best friend, who happened to be black--and therefore was unsuitable, according to his parents, for friendship at all. In searching for Bisco, Caldwell seeks larger answers. Here is one answer he found from a white Alabamian:

I'll tell you what the whole trouble is. It's all because people in the rest of the country just don't understand the racial situation down here. They're ignorant about it and we've got to educate them by showing them how to manage it. People up North think the blacks ought to be treated like anybody else and they criticize us for the way we handle them. They'll learn some day that we know more about it than they do.

. . .

It's just like I said. We know how to handle the blacks. We've been raised up with them and we know what's good for them better than they do themselves.

It's the same old story: an old, old story.

UPDATE: Killen guilty of manslaughter.

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