Damned If We Don't | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Damned If We Don't

The weekend Katrina hit, Kate Medley and I were in the Natchez area finishing research and art for the package of stories that you'll read in this issue. This time in Adams and Franklin counties, as Kate and I got to know people like Burl Jones, a Klan victim who had never been interviewed about the experience, and then watched burly Wharlest Jackson Jr. bawl like a baby describing his daddy's murder that has gotten so little attention over the years, I was still seething about a little ditty in The New York Times that belittled Southerners who are trying to confront our past.

The piece, by reporter Shaila Dewan, who covered the Killen trial alongside us in June, appeared Aug. 9 in the Week In Review section, while we were buried in our latest round of research on unsolved civil rights cases in our state, a project our team of native Mississippians started back before the Edgar Ray Killen trial this summer.

Ms. Dewan started: "After 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."

Wait. "Dredging up"? Sorry, Times, but you are co-opting the language of Klan apologists. And I'm a bit curious what imperial authority declared the Killen case would be the "last in a series of reckonings." In fact, during Killen's trial, Natalie Irby, Thabi Moyo, Kate and I—all Mississippians by birth—were already working with David Ridgen of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. to help get the case of Charles Moore and Henry Dee re-opened next.

While national journalists were presumably trying to figure out whether or not Mississippi is still a racist snake pit, these women and I were trying to get leads about the Moore-Dee case from civil rights veterans who attended the trial. (With success: James Chaney's brother Ben Chaney and Keith Beauchamp, the Emmett Till documentarian, helped us find Henry Dee's sister, still living in Natchez. We were the first media team to interview her since her brother was brutally murdered in 1964.)

Meantime, Natalie was speechless because she got to shake the hand of Rita Schwerner Bender, the widow of Michael Schwerner. We may have been the only reporters present who knew exactly who Ms. Bender was talking about when she chided the national media gaggle for only being there because her husband and Andrew Goodman were white, when there were two black bodies found in the Mississippi River the same year. She was talking about the case we were already working on.

The Times, though, responded with cynicism: Why are white Southerners "dredging up" cases now? Fame? Fortune? Tourism dollars? We must now have an agenda that couldn't possibly have a thing to do with seeing justice done in old murder cases that have long haunted our hearts. Ms. Dewan disparages this desire as perhaps "a spiritual renewal," but then really lets loose. "[O]thers 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."

Ouch. Way to slam us with unnamed skeptics, while the part of the story where a new generation of Mississippians find their voices and courage and go looking to understand and reclaim our history—in order to help us address that "present-day inequality"—simply gets passed over writ large. We are Mississippians, after all. We are racist, we are backward, we are ignorant, we are hopeless. They must really believe that barefoot bullshit that Hollywood, not to mention our own demagoguic politicians, has promoted about our people for so long. Meantime, they're missing the real story.

In July, our team followed Thomas Moore for two weeks in a case that even reporter Jerry Mitchell had said would never be prosecuted. We were the first to report that accused murderer James Ford Seale is still alive after other outlets, including one owned by the Times, had said he was dead.

We watched The Associated Press pick up our thread (and Kate's photos, I'm happy to say) about Thomas' trip the week after our story, and the news about Seale weeks later. They reported about the Colorado soldier and the Canadian TV man, even as Thomas tells everyone he can't believe what "an old soldier, a Canadian and a group of Mississippi women" have accomplished. It rather reminds me of references to the "murders of Goodman and Schwerner" I used to hear about in New York City.

Don't get me wrong: We're not doing this to get the Times to cover us. We are doing this because we have to. But I do take it personally when I watch young Mississippians crawl through woods looking for unmarked graves, then scratch chigger bites for weeks—and the Times turns around and proclaims that Southerners are "dredging up" old cases for reasons other than it being the right thing to do. That rankles.

Hell, yeah, we want the world to know that Mississippians are now willing to demand justice even for the cases that the national (and local) media have neglected for so long. We are heeding our consciences and Ms. Bender's call, whether or not anyone out there takes notice.

We mourn the fact that Mississippi has had more than our fair share—more than any state's share per capita—of bigots and Klansmen and lynch mobs, and we're sick of neighbors who rationalize our ugly race past and try to use lingering bigotry to get votes for corporate cronies with few of our best interests at heart, no matter what race we are. (Ahem, Guv.)

Facing this legacy, and reversing the effects of it, is the cross that Mississippians bear. Many of us know it, live it, breathe it, push for the redemption and deliverance from evil every day of our lives.

What is news is the sheer number of people who are publicly climbing on board now. The reasons are varied, and some arguably more honorable than others. But when you grow up in this state wanting nothing more than for your neighbors to realize how ugly racism is, praying to live among people who wantjustice in old Klan murders, you don't go around obsessing over whose reasons are more cynical. When you suddenly read a (whining!) editorial in Wyatt Emmerich's Northside Sun (which historically has seemed to celebrate white flight more than anything else) saying that elected officials like our attorney general are prosecuting old civil rights cases because it's the politically correct thing to do now, you turn on the strobe lights and pass the tumblers of Jack Daniels.

People, that is the Mississippi we want to live in. Party on.

But even if our national critics acknowledge that, well, Mississippi is starting to turn, rather than burn, they still have to bash us for it. We get articles like Ms. Dewan's—poorly written and riddled with passives and unnamed "skeptics"—that cynically lambaste Southerners for doing what they (rightly) harangued us all those years for not doing.

Screw 'em.

Mississippi should not pursue our past to make outsiders happy, or to help bring business here, or to make us more attractive to tourists. Sure, those are benefits, but they are fringe. We must face our past and understand what was wrong with it and how it still affects our present and future for ourselves; Mississippians of all races absolutely must tell our own stories, our way, with love and hopefully some forgiveness, and with unflinching honesty.

Meantime, I've grown to believe that many people out there want Mississippi to fail, for us to continue to be the bigots everyone hates so, presumably, they can feel better about Brown University being named after a slave-trader or the urban ghettos that too many corporate reporters, and elected officials, still ignore. They want us to remain the ignorant whipping boys and girls of this country. They want to believe someone is doing even less than they are to help race healing in America.

We, however, have a different plan.

See Donna Ladd's blog at donnaladd.com

Read the JFP's full package of stories about the Klan and their victims in and around Natchez and Meadville, Miss., in the 1960s:

I Want Justice, Too: Thomas Moore's Story, July 21, 2005
A Dream Deferred, July 27, 2005
Franklin Advocate Editorial and Thomas Moore Response, July 28, 2005
Evolution of a Man: Lifting the Hood in South Mississippi, Oct. 26, 2005
Daddy, Get Up: This Son of Natchez Wants Justice, Too, Oct. 26, 2005
Dear Meadville: Thomas Moore Tries to Wake Up His Hometown, Oct. 26, 2005
Editor's Note: Damned If We Don't, Oct. 26, 2005

Also see: JFP Blog: Mississippi v. Edgar Ray Killen, June 2005

Previous Comments

ID
70928
Comment

There is a slight tweak in this column as posted here. In the print version, I referred to "a case that even reporter Jerry Mitchell had said would never be re-opened." What I should have said was "would never be prosecuted," as it now says below. Jerry, of The Clarion-Ledger, helped get the case re-opened a few years back, but little has happened on it. He said in an interview earlier this year that "Thomas Moore lost a brother to the Klan in the Summer of í64 but is not bitter. He remains an inspiring man, yet he will never see justice for his brother because authorities have closed that case." He may be right, but I hope not. And, truthfully, because so much of the media thought one of the main suspects was dead until Thomas' trip down there in July, which we covered, that mistaken notion (of Seale's death) might have influenced his statement. Either way, from what I've seen about this case, I believe it should be investigated thoroughly, and should yield prosecutions if enough energy is put into it. The two main suspects are alive, at leat some witnesses may still be, the murders were likely talked about openly and with pride, and there are piles of FBI documents. It's not like there is no evidence to start with. I believe it's more about the will to prosecute this case at this point. Oh, and I would link to the horrendous New York Times piece, except that the Times charges for articles in its archives. So take my word for how execrable it was.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-10-26T16:31:22-06:00
ID
70929
Comment

We do this for ourselves, not for their approval. Carry on, everyone!

Author
Ironghost
Date
2005-10-26T20:51:27-06:00
ID
70930
Comment

Ms. Dewan disparages this desire as perhaps ìa spiritual renewal,î but then really lets loose. ì[O]thers 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.î Personal gain? She's full of $hit!! My partner is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. We are Civil War re-enactors. Since I've started to collect funds for the Moore/Dee Headstone Fund, most of the SCV members respect what I'm doing (even donating to our cause). But there are a few that make me feel very uncomfortable. They even try to provoke me by espousing their beliefs, using all the right racial slurs just to see the look on my face. They try to tell me that I'm a traitor. I am very non-confrontational, and their attitudes hurt. So I can only imagine how it would hurt to have this behavior thrust towards you 24/7, as my black brothers and sisters do. If you are out there fighting the good fight, you get skepticism and hostility thrown back in your face most of the time. The spiritual renewal is the greatest benefit (cheers, Iron), because I'm sure as hell not getting any personal or political gain from this, and it is NOT easy. So Ms. Dewan can kiss my lily white a$$!

Author
Steph
Date
2005-10-27T08:31:31-06:00
ID
70931
Comment

Thanks, Steph. I wish we could link the whole idiotic story. I showed a copy to my other editors here after I wrote this piece to make sure I wasn't over-reacting. Theyósome native Mississippians, some notóall thought it was *worse* than I presented in the above column. The most disturbing part to meóbeyond Ms. Dewan using the very same "dredging up" language we've all been harangued with by bigots our whole livesówas the, er, re-dredging of the idea that we are somehow NOT dealing with our present and future race inequities by trying to reveal and prosecute old cases. It is sheer dumbassedness to think that you are going to convince people ignorant of how things got the way they are to turn around and support policies to help the inner-cities and equalize public education. Stupidity. It reminds me of trying to have an intelligent conversation with someone about affirmative action, or the Adequate Education funding act in Mississippi, who has decided that everything is equal already. That's ignorance, and it blocks understanding. Therefore, in order to ease the inequities, we MUST go back to the roots of these problems and tell the storiesóno, not by parading opposing quotes from the NAACP and the Klan, but by telling the damn human stories that people can get inside and feel. And hopefully prosecute some cases along the way because it's the RIGHT thing to do. I believe to my bones that it is the only way the race inequality problems will ever be addressed in our state (or any others, but those are their postage stamps to worry about. We have ours). It's about knowledge, stupid. Sadly, I have witnessed this attitude way too much over the past couple of years. The same people who complained for years and years (rightly) about Mississippians who won't face our past, then turn around and start whining when we start trying to. We had a blog posting some months ago that complained, complained that the district attorney in the Neshoba County case had a grandfather, I think, in the Klan or Citizens Council. Yeah? Of course he friggin' did. If you know anything about the history of this state, you know that most of us white folks did. So where's the logic in then criticizing us for trying to face our past by saying that we had bigot relatives. Doh. As I say in the column above, and as Ironhost so eloquently backs me up on, we must "do this for ourselves, not for their approval." And, as I said about those who want to harangue us doing it now: Screw 'em.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-10-27T10:53:58-06:00
ID
70932
Comment

Steph and Donna, y'all are my heroes.

Author
Ray Carter
Date
2005-11-02T15:32:35-06:00
ID
70933
Comment

I love you, too, Ray :-) Unfortunately, the Dee/Moore Headstone Fund has not moved as fast as I had wanted. I've been spending too much time traveling for my company (I'm an Emergency Management Project Officer-in-Training and I love it!!). I should be staying in MS for awhile come mid November and intend to bring the fund to closure and purchase the headstones. (I received a modest settlement in September and plan on making up the difference) I just need to stay around for a few days to get it done!

Author
Steph
Date
2005-11-02T15:39:29-06:00
ID
70934
Comment

Ok Steph. Let me know if you need anything else from me.

Author
Ray Carter
Date
2005-11-02T15:44:53-06:00

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