Myrlie Evers-Williams says she and her husband, Medgar, held each other and cried days before he died. They knew he was about to be killed for his tireless work to bring equality and dignity to blacks in Mississippi. "Promise me you will take care of my children," he told her as he held her.
Oh man. I stared at those words, knowing Medgar's babies would later watch a cowardly fool crouch in honeysuckle bushes and shoot their daddy in the back on behalf of my people, white people. That was a full 42 years ago this week, but my tears burst forth as I thought of this man who was willing to give everything he had to give to help Mississippi be a better place for his and for all its children, regardless of race. He was a man who loved his wife and children and knew that he would die to make Mississippi better.
Once Myrlie asked him, "Why you?" He answered simply, "If not me, who?"
Those words are particularly resonant this week as we approach the trial of Edgar Ray Killen in my home county of Neshoba. The tension and the expectations are high. So is the dread. What if the jury doesn't convict? What if they only convict Edgar Ray, and don't go after other conspirators, like state officials and the "upstanding" Citizen Council members who so ably enabled the violence of the Ku Klux Klan? Will we convict and then forget? Is it enough?
But one question nags many Mississippians the most, as media crowd in from all over looking for a story, preferably one involving trouble and angry racists who make good copy. Why now?
Because, fellow Mississippians, it is our time. It is our moment in history to not only do what our parents and grandparents should have done—be good people who don't commit, support, condone, excuse or cover up hatred and violence—and who do not pass the burden of bigotry onto our kids to weigh down their possibilities and handicap their futures. If not now, when?
This burden has been passed from generation to generation in this state, from slavery and Jim Crow through the present when many will say "all that stuff is in the past," even as public schools empty of white students because their parents are afraid to send them to school with blacks. Our generation was passed this burden even as those handing it off to us tried to tell us that racism is a thing of the past.
Meantime, children and parents across the country have felt the pain of loss that was not considered equal to other crimes because the people killed were fighting to free us from this burden of our history. They are still feeling the pain: Andrew Goodman's mother; Michael Schwerner's widow; James Chaney's daughter.
I met Angela Lewis last year, months before Edgar Ray was arrested. The Meridian nurse is the daughter of James Chaney, the young black Mississippian who found the courage to hook up with two white Yankees in 1964 to do the unthinkable—help blacks gain power by exercising their right to vote. If not him, who?
The three young men died together on Father's Day, 1964, executed in a scheme believed to have been planned by Edgar Ray Killen, then a preacher who seemed to think God only loved white folk. Angela never met her daddy, whose body was found rotting under a dam near the Neshoba County Fairgrounds on Aug. 4, 1964, alongside his comrades in equality. I was almost 3 when they were dug up.
My path crossed Angela's because of this case. She had never done an interview about her father's murder, and I was a member of the media, and a Neshoba Countian, not used to being in the spotlight for a case I had long mourned over. A national magazine put us together to show there is another generation in Mississippi—blacks and whites who love their state, who work for it, who believe in it, and who were still angry, or at least frustrated and sad, that our state had never sought justice for the murder of Angela's father and his friends.
At first, the pairing seemed stilted and awkward. It was odd for both of us to have lipstick applied (and by Michael Jackson's sister-in-law from L.A.) while standing in the spot where her daddy died. But two heroes of the 1960s—David Dennis and Stanley Dearman—were there, so that helped. I wrote then about how the day ended up as a tearful conversation between us Mississippians and those Californians about what the case, and the movement, really was—and it wasn't "Mississippi Burning." That day, we told our own stories, and outsiders listened—not the other way around, as usual, with Mississippians covering their ears. It was very special—to me, to Angela, to Dave and Stanley, to our visitors from New York and California.
But the most meaningful part for me came later, when Glamour came in the mail, and I read Angela's side of the story. She'd talked to the writer later about first meeting me in the Meridian hotel, and how we quickly discovered what we had in common—down to both being vegetarians.
In the magazine, though, Angela described listening to Stanley Dearman and me talk about our frustration that the conspirators had never been brought to justice. She told Glamour: "It was important for me to hear white people voicing that outrage. I'd never known there was that much concern for justice for my father in the white community."
Reading Angela's words was an "a-ha" moment for me. How simple, yet excruciating, is this riddle we Mississippians face. How hard can it be to look at our neighbors and say, "I'm sorry. This was wrong; white people were wrong," without making excuses or saying the pain belongs in the past? Who are we whites to say Angela should not mourn for her father or want to see his murderers brought to justice, whether four months or 40 years later? And how can we stop the cycle of passing the burden of shame to our own children if we cannot also share in Angela's loss?
Someone asked me last week why this case, and the public support of it here, is happening now. It's about the children, I told him. After all, if not us, who?
Donna Ladd and Natalie Irby will blog about the Killen trial at http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/neshoba.
How simple, yet excruciating, is this riddle we Mississippians face. How hard can it be to look at our neighbors and say, ìIím sorry. This was wrong, white people were wrong,î without making excuses or saying the pain belongs in the past?
Thank you, Donna, for saying it. May we all (white people) say it in our own words. And may we understand that it is for the children, it's for our fellow Mississippians on the other side of that narrowing color divide, and it's also for us. Anyone who doesn't know it's for "us" as well may never be a whole person, only a sham of a human.
Angela is interviewed in The Clarion-Ledger today. This is a very appropriate front-page story for them today -- to feature James Chaney's daughter on Page 1. I'm glad she consented to do this interview.
She talks about meeting Dave Dennis last spring and how meaningful it was to learn more about her father. That day was just very incredibleóperhaps the most meaningful I've ever witnessed. This is the column I wrote about it at the time.
I read it - it brought tears to my eyes. Let me go read yours - I must have missed it the first time around. I know that you put your special touch in your article and I don't want to miss that.
I don't believe that's the right link - although it's a link to an interesting note about putting a marker at the spot where it happened.