It happened under an oak tree deep in the woods of Franklin County in 2005. Two weeks after a jury had finally decided to convict somebody for planning the murders of three civil rights workers in my county in 1964, I was listening to the brother of Charles Moore, killed by Klansmen weeks before the Neshoba murders, talk about unspeakable times for his family.
We were standing over Charles' grave.
I was already in on the idea that justice needed to be served for old Klan murders; I was there because I wanted, in part, to show that Mississippians could give a damn about the naked brutality that still defines our state for so many. Ever since I'd started peering behind the curtain as a teenager at the very-recent past that adults wanted to hide from us kids, I had seen how unresolved community hate could stunt a town's—and a state's—growth. I was with Thomas Moore in southwest Mississippi, once the heart of "Klan nation," to pick at that scab.
On this road, I've discovered that we don't always "know" what we think we know. The facts aren't enough, and neither is a general sense of how wrong murder is.
As we stood there on a sweaty July day, Thomas let it all out. And suddenly I felt in my gut how it must feel for self-righteous men to pluck your brother off the face of the planet, and no one cares. At least no one white. No one who would tell you they were sorry, or try to do anything real to help bring justice for your loss.
I was eye-to-eye with this decorated military veteran as he described the raw pain of two self-ordained protectors of the peace beating and drowning his brother, kind of like losing one of his arms. All I had to do was take a step forward and stand in his shoes to feel his anguish. While he described a world where no official came and even talked to his mother, Mazie, and one in which she demanded silence about her son's murder even in the house so as not to endanger the life of her other son, I suddenly got it.
As much as anything, this was about the living. It was about black mothers who saw the mangled body of Emmett Till in 1955 in an open casket in Jet magazine and feared, rightfully, that their boys might never come home, executed because society did not value them. And once their boys were dead, these mamas knew that their state and country would somehow justify it. It's all they knew.
Then and now, young, black men are often killed because white people fear them, and they kill each other because society tells them their lives are worthless. But the most terrifying part is that white people still defend others killing black folks because we have been socialized for generations to accept it. In the 1960s, police and Klansmen (often the same people) could kill young men of color for sport and get away with it. Today, police and everyday citizens regularly kill black people for minor crimes—if not just the fear that they might commit one—and are then applauded for it because we're still stunted by what we were taught to believe.
Growing up in America, white people have always been told either directly or indirectly to fear black people. If we're lucky enough not to have parents who hawk straight-up racism—that black people are lazy or more violent—we have to maneuver a culture built on the idea that we whites just do things better. These days, whites are more likely to point to "black-on-black" crime or the terrible families who allow such violence to happen, or who don't provide role models who "work for a living." We're still told that black people do these things to themselves.
Seriously, how many times have you seen those memes on Facebook just in the days since the Ferguson grand jury decision? Many otherwise-educated whites march them out so quickly it makes your head hurt, while few bother to ask their own black friends how they feel about the situation.
Each time, I wonder if they know they are using the same three excuses that sent Charles Moore, and so many others, to their graves? Back all the way to justifying slavery, whites have been taught (a) that black people are dangerous and (b) they are lazy if left to their own devices and (c) just want the government (meaning us) to take care of them.
Nowadays, it's morphed into "many" black people are those things, especially if the ones who have managed to overcome those so-called natural tendencies don't force the others to pull up their pants and get right.
On that same trip with Chief Master Sgt. Moore, I visited a former Klansman, Kenneth Greer, who had been friends with James Ford Seale and Charles Edwards, the men who kidnapped Moore and his friend Dee and doomed them to their death.
Greer, who could still drop the n-word here and there, was remarkably honest on my visits with him about why he had joined the Klan back then (and later helped the FBI). It was simple: His family had taught him that black men were violent, and whites believed they especially had to protect their daughters from them by any means necessary. And, they were lazy: They didn't want to work and care for their families, and the rest of us had to pay for that. Ironically, Greer and his friends were also worried about black people taking their decent-paying jobs at International Paper and Armstrong Tire Co.
By that twisted logic, it was understandable to those men to harass, murder and work to keep "them" away from the ballot box. Today, it is somehow justifiable for a cop to fire 12 rounds at an unarmed Michael Brown, because he stole cigarillos and scuffled with him, rather than the officer to get out of the way if he was scared. And it makes total sense for a neighborhood "protector" to stalk and kill Trayvon Martin because of what many white folks believe he "must" have been up to—just look at him—but not for him to have tried to fight back against a possible raging racist trying to harm him.
Because, we're told repeatedly, just look at black-on-black crime.
Yes, look at it. And ask why. Ask why the hunted could become the hunters. Ask why many black families struggle with the hand our society has dealt them and tried to lock them into. Ask why our majority culture justifies using deadly force for shoplifting or on a 12-year-old with a BB gun, if the "perp" happens to be a black person in the wrong place. Ask why we still believe fear of black skin justifies just about any response.
Then, ask why we talk so little about white-on-white crime and what we should do, being that folks overwhelmingly kill people of their own race. Are we so different from our parents and grandparents? Will future generations try to hide their parents' thirst for brutality in a painful lockbox as so many of us have tried to do about the past?
For now, black parents are left fearing the same thing they always did: that like Mrs. Moore and Mrs. Till and Trayvon and Michael's mamas, their kids will leave the house one day and never come home. Then they will listen to white America tell them they deserved it and to shut up about it.
Let's step into their shoes for a while.
See the JFP's full archive of Ferguson coverage here. Also see: Revisiting the Kerner Report: How Much Has Changed Since the 1960s Riots? and Time To Reset, White Folks.