Sunday, June 26, 2005

Killen's trial: further perspectives

Among the hundreds of correspondents at last week's trial of Edgar Ray Killen in Philadelphia, Miss., was Chicago Tribune reporter Dahleen Glanton (registration req.). An African American from the South who identifies with one of the girls who was killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a reporter who has covered a number of latter-day trials of southern white men for old racial crimes, she has a point of view worth hearing. None of the defendants, she said--not Edgar Ray Kilen, not Thomas Blanton Jr. (convicted in 2001 in the Birmingham case), not one of them--has appeared remorseful. Only George Wallace seemed to change his stripes. "In a gesture I still don't understand," Glanton writes, "the former governor handed me an autographed picture of himself during his heyday in the 1960s. Then he blew me a kiss as I turned to leave." She concludes,

The fact that America is revisiting its sordid past points to how far the South has come in 40 years. And each time someone like Killen is forced to pay for his sins, no matter how slow justice is in coming, a piece of historical baggage is lifted from my shoulders.

Also in the Tribune is a reflection on the 1967 federal civil rights trial in the Philadelphia case by William Neikirk, the reporter who covered it then for the paper. Seven men were found guilty; eight were acquitted; two went free as a result of deadlocks. One was Killen. (The lone holdout said she could not convict a preacher.) That any white man was convicted of any crime related to blacks in the South was a major turning point, Neikirk writes.

The stunning outcome of the trial in 1967 showed that truth is a powerful instrument in combating racism and violence against minorities. The trial in 2005 fhows that justice has a long, long memory.

My mother reminds me that we were in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1964. We had a tea with Lady Bird Johnson in the family quarters of the White House, possibly on the day the three bodies were found (a moment she reacted to with shame, as she still remembers). We were disappointed that the President couldn't join us, but it's obvious now that he had other things on his mind.

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