Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Saturday, January 29, 2005  

History: Columnist considers roles in civil rights movement

Newspaper editor Ralph Tomaselli has given some thought to the subtleties of the civil rights movement. There is a temptation to focus on the movement as a simple story: Some bad guys were being mean to people of color, especially African-Americans. Some good guys came along and made the bad guys stop. I realize why that happened. It is easier to teach children about history if you keep events simple. George Washington and the cherry tree. Ben Franklin and his loaf of bread. And, in a country where literacy is not what it should be, the concept extends beyond children. But, when we simplify history, we make it less accurate. Tomaselli demonstrates the problem in describing the roles of several public figures in the civil rights movement. His piece appeared in the Record-Journal.

The Kennedy Brothers, John and Robert, receive a lot of credit for backing [Martin Luther] King, but a study of history shows the brothers at first considered King and the Civil Rights movement a possible hindrance to winning JFK a second term as president. Pragmatism took precedence over idealism as it often does when whites confront racism. The Kennedy's, who had never been denied the right to vote or the use of a bathroom or water fountain because of their color, felt overt support of King would cost them Southern votes. They wanted Civil Rights for blacks, but at a much slower pace.

In contrast, Lyndon Johnson, a man reviled by many for his role in the Vietnam War, understood the importance of the Civil Rights movement many years earlier and felt much more deeply about the cause. The vice president, who unlike the Kennedy's had grown up around Mexican-Americans and blacks and witnessed oppression, couldn't believe his president and party waited until the summer of 1963 to throw the full awesome weight of the executive branch behind civil rights.

It was Johnson, after Kennedy's death, that pushed through the most meaningful Civil Rights bill ever passed at great risk to his political future. Johnson had many character flaws, but his determination to see blacks get equal rights was probably his most admirable achievement.

Tomaselli observes, accurately, that the Kennedy brothers received credit that should have gone to Johnson. For example, there was a song, "Abraham, Martin and John" that became quite popular among African-Americans. It also is not unusual to see photo montages featuring the Kennedys and King in the homes of black people old enough to recall the movement. Lyndon Johnson goes largely unmentioned, his image marred by his role in the Vietnam War.

The point both Tomaselli and I want to make is not that the Kennedys should be vilified for not being firm enough in their support of the civil rights movement. They were not like Bull Connor, the Birmingham, Alabama, sheriff who became a symbol of hatred. However, their degree of commitment was less than it could have been. But for events in Birmingham forcing their hands, they might have delayed progress in the civil rights movement. President Johnson, no fence sitter, was ready to end American apartheid.

Tomaselli wrote his column in regard to a delay in making Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a holiday in Wallingford, Conn. Civic leaders there first sided with those who opposed the King holiday for ideological reasons, though their emphasis was on the cost. By doing so, the officials were like the Kennedys were initially -- so insensitive to civil rights that they did not distinguish themselves from the opposition. A demonstration by white supremacist Matt Hale's World Church of the Creator, contemporary Bull Connors, was their wake-up call.

By simplifying history, we set the stage for such misunderstandings to occur.

What's the art?

The White House photographer photographed Rev. King and President Johnson in 1966.

posted by J. | 6:15 PM

Friday, January 28, 2005  

Opinion: Mixed reaction to Killen case

I've done plenty of reading about the indictment of Edgar Ray Killen in the Mississippi Burning murders. It ranged from mainstream, including Newsweek and the New Yorker, to the far Right, including neo-Confederate sites and Free Republic. The responses varied from whole-hearted approval of the charges to claims they are persecution of Killen by the federal government. (The prosecution, as in most murders, is by the state. But, for some reason, conspiracy buffs focus on the federal government.) The Neshoba Democrat, Killen's hometown newspaper, reports a similar mixed reaction locally.

The arrest of Edgar Ray Killen has stirred strong, wide-ranging emotions and opinion is split on naming him in a 40-year-old triple murder case, interviews and conversations with dozens of persons since his arrest reveal.

Many under 40 are quick to view the indictment as justice served, the beginning of an opportunity to close a chapter of history that has long been a cloud over the community.

Killen, 80 and free on $250,000 bond, is accused of the June 21, 1964, murders of three civil rights workers here, one of the most notorious unprosecuted crimes of the civil rights era.

Some older Neshoba countians believe the case should be left alone or that the civil rights workers got what they deserved — and there are younger people who feel that way as well.

Killen, said to have been the organizer of the murders in 1964, has been charged with killing James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. His trial has been set for March 28. But, that is rather fast for the criminal court apparatus. I expect delays.

There are two polarities in the comments at the Neshoba Democrat. The first is the previously mentioned division of age. Younger people, those in their 40s or less, appear to welcome the chickens coming home to roost. They hope that finally holding Killen accountable will dispel the dark cloud that has hung over Philadelphia, Miss., in the national consciousness for decades. But, in these comments, and, other articles I've read, older white residents don't want the trial to take place. There lies the second division of opinion. Some of them think the murders should be under rug swept. Others, probably the majority, believe it was acceptable for the Klansmen and their associates to slay the civil rights workers.

The opposite side of the generation line, however, paints a different view with many, though not all, who lived through the civil rights era holding fast to old ideas and a monochromatic view of the community.

Conversations with some older Neshoba countians since Killen’s arrest reveal that racism treads just below the surface in many instances, with one man venturing so far as to say murder “depends on who you kill.”

I've also encountered the viewpoint that killing a black, Jew or civil rights worker (usually referred to as a Communist) is not really murder at other sites. One participant in Free Republic claims the prosecution is the work of a fifth column within the government. Another says Killen is a nice old man being picked on, it is O.J. Simpson who needs to be prosecuted.

Killen is out on $250,000 bail.

Reasonably related

Jeffrey Goldberg visited Edgar Ray Killen a few years ago. With the aid of some hamburgers from McDonald's and unshakeable nerves, he talked to a man with a shotgun in his hand. I highly recommend you read his article at the New Yorker online.

posted by J. | 10:45 PM