Dredging Up the Past: Why Mississippians Must Tell Our Own Stories | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Dredging Up the Past: Why Mississippians Must Tell Our Own Stories

Photos by Kate Medley

It was warm under the mammoth magnolia tree on the north side of the Neshoba County Courthouse, just yards from where the Confederate soldier stood on his marble pedestal until a storm knocked him over and broke his arm off a few years back.

Natalie Irby, 23 and looking more rock 'n' roll than the rest of the media with tattoos peeking out from under her sleeves, stood in a circle of media, her pen poised over her notebook, not writing much. As cameras clicked all around her, Irby stared intently at the petite, gray-haired woman in the middle of the media circle on the third day of the Edgar Ray Killen trial in June 2005.

Rita Schwerner Bender was a widow who was getting close to a modicum of justice for the Klan murder of her husband, Michael Schwerner, along with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, on Father's Day, 1964. Then, Bender was a 22-year-old who set up a Freedom School in Meridian with her husband so that black people could learn to read and earn the right to vote.

This did not please white Mississippi—a state where the upstanding citizens of the White Citizens Council worked with the state-funded spy agency, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, to funnel information like the license-plate number of Chaney's station wagon to the enforcers of the Ku Klux Klan, many of whom were officers of the law.

Natalie-the-JFP-blogger didn't ask any questions; she just stared as Bender dressed down the press corps for not doing more to reveal, and undo the effects of, this statewide conspiracy to forcibly deny black people the same rights as white people.

"You're here, you're interested in this trial as the most important trial in the Civil Rights Movement because two of the men were white," Bender told the media. "You're still doing what was done in 1964."

There were two black men found in the Mississippi River the same year; where was the attention to that case, she asked? Natalie looked at me, and I twisted my head to look at photographer Kate Medley, who was hopping around shooting photos of Bender.

We knew who she meant.

Eye on the Next Prize
Our team was at the Killen trial with an eye toward the next civil-rights murders that we wanted brought to justice, or at least to light—the brutal Klan murders of Henry Dee and Charles Moore in South Mississippi on May 2, 1964. Both black teenagers. Both nearly forgotten. Both hardly covered by the media, unlike the murders of Bender's husband and his friends—a case often referred to in places like New York City as the "murders of Schwerner and Goodman," who were the two white men Bender referred to at the courthouse.

Dee-Moore was a case that a Clarion-Ledger reporter had said would never be prosecuted; the paper had even reported in 2000 that the main suspect—James Ford Seale—was not alive, even though he lived openly in Roxie, Miss., with his wife in a small mobile home next to his brother's house.

At the Killen trial, we were working with a Canadian filmmaker, quietly investigating Dee-Moore—looking for information, people who might know something—as he was back home in Toronto, planning a trip to Meadville, Miss., where we would meet up with him and Thomas Moore, the brother of Charles Moore, who had long pined for justice for the murders.

We didn't know then if justice was possible, being that the primary suspect was reportedly dead, but we Mississippi natives desperately wanted to know the details of that case so we could tell the story. This was vital Mississippi history that deserved to be known, regardless of its potential for prosecution.

We saw the Killen case as a beginning, not an ending, as so many people seemed to believe.

Forty-one years after her husband died a few miles down Highway 19-South from a gunshot to his chest, Bender dressed down a community, a nation and a press corps that had done too little over the years to bring justice and closure for the families of those three men, or the hundreds like them killed in race violence in Mississippi alone. This was good, but it was not enough. And it shouldn't be the end, she told us. It was premature to declare it the "last case," as media were prone to do.

"The discussion about racism in this country has to continue," Bender said. "If this is a way to do that, then this trial has meaning."

After her talk, Natalie shyly walked up to the woman she idolizes, simply asking to shake her hand.

Two Steps Forward …
There are two types of Mississippians—those who want us only to look forward (to "quit apologizing for the past"), and those who say we must look backward in order to move forward.

OK, maybe there's a third. Those of us—like Natalie and the rest of the JFP team who are working on these cases—who feel our past weighing down our state, and ourselves, so strongly that we are cursed until a new generation pulls every single skeleton out of the closet and props it up in the front yard for all to ponder. We believe it's akin to showing a kid a wrecked car so he won't go drink and drive.

Then again, maybe there's a fourth type—one that seems to become more prominent by the day. Those are the people who are wrestling with the past-vs.-present false dilemma, the ones who wish we could leave it in the past, but are starting to face that justice is justice, no matter who it's for. The old argument—that the life of a black man, or someone fighting for him, isn't worth our full attention—is beginning to fade for these people. Thankfully.

"They should have done it already," said Shirley Greer, sitting in her Natchez living room last Sunday, three days before the James Ford Seale trial was set to start in Jackson. "They're old now."

Greer, sitting next to her husband and former Klansman James K. Greer, had just repeated the sentiments of so many Mississippians—why go after old, sick Klansmen like Edgar Ray Killen and James Ford Seale after so many years? But then, as many Mississippians are starting to do today, she answered her own question: "Anytime somebody murders somebody, they should be punished. I don't guess it's ever too late to prosecute them. Most everybody is important," she added.

Her husband, who seemed split down the middle on the question when the JFP interviewed him in July 2005, seemed to be leaning more solidly toward prosecution as well.

"There are 5,332,000 blacks who want something done, and they're people and citizens of this country. They're entitled to it," he said. "We're talking about taking some people's lives. Those were just two kids."

Back in the early 1960s, Greer had joined the violent White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan—the branch blamed for many civil rights murders and beatings—and was friends with both Charles Marcus Edwards, who was arrested in 1964 with Seale for the murders of Dee and Moore, and then released, and Ernest Avants, who would be convicted in 2003 for the 1963 murder of black sharecropper Ben Chester White. Greer would end up cooperating with the FBI in the 1960s after he tried to recruit his own father into the Klan, and his daddy told him about his Klan buddies: "'Son, that's a bunch of fools.'"

"He was right," Greer told the JFP in 2005 and again last weekend. Several times.

Both times, Greer seemed conflicted over the questions still posed to Mississippians by our race past—especially the big one over whether we should keep unpacking the skeletons, looking for justice and the roots of today's problems.

Greer—who first revealed to the JFP in 2005 that James Ford Seale was still alive—has decided that prosecuting murder cases, even race cases, makes sense, but he's not sure about airing the rest of the dirty Klucker robes. "If you're just going back digging into Klan activity, to see why they did this or did that, you can go back to Jackson," he said Sunday.

Meantime, Greer, 74, has spent about 10 hours doing exactly that with the JFP—revealing the what and, to the best of his ability, the why. He's talked about the blue-collar culture at International Paper, where he and dozens of other Klansmen worked, and the fears of black people that were instilled in them as children, passed down by the culture and their families, and seldom questioned by people around him.

Based on what they had been taught all their lives, whites believed that school integration would hurt their children, Greer said. He also said that working-class whites believed that black people were going to take their jobs and, thus, their livelihoods.

"We was poor, and they were poor," Greer said in 2005.

The former Klansman told me Sunday that he is still not sure he should have talked to me, and revealed so much, in July 2005—but he seems eager to share more details so that the full story be told, both about the ugly past and the progress the state is making. He is adamant, as I am, that both stories need to be told together, though—and shakes his head at reporters who just come to Mississippi trolling for a Klansman.

Greer says he has black friends now, especially from his years at "the mill," including a dear friend from a later job at Enterprise Rent-a-Car—a man who came to his house and begged him not to quit when he decided to leave the rental agency (and who knows about his Klan past). Greer says he likes the black people who live on this block—especially the man at the corner who keeps his yard up better than he does his own—but he still struggles with the language of change, in addition to the what, why and whether he should help set our history straight.

Even as he is lamenting the past, Greer still uses the word "nigger" with unsettling ease in a world where the word is barely used even in an educational way. But he tends to switch to "black" or "colored" when talking about the present.

At one point Sunday, Greer referred to Ben Chester White as "that old nigger," and his wife interrupted him. "You're supposed to be saying 'colored,'" she admonished.

"He wasn't 'colored' back then; he was a 'nigger,'" Greer rejoined before finishing his thought.

Bigotry of Low Expectations
When CBC producer David Ridgen first called me in June 2005, just weeks before the Edgar Ray Killen trial, to ask how the JFP planned to cover the proceedings, I told him I wasn't sure. I said my gut instinct was to take the passion we had put into calling for the Killen prosecution and put it toward telling another story of an unsolved civil rights "cold case"—particularly murders of black Mississippians who had never attracted the same kind of national or state attention as the murders of Goodman, Schwerner and, therefore, Chaney, in my hometown. I live in the state where the most lynchings occurred and, therefore, the state that still suffers from the most unsolved lynchings. Killen shouldn't be the "last" one, I said.

I told him I had long heard a story about two young men who had been found back then in either the Pearl or the Mississippi River; he excitedly responded that it was the case of Dee and Moore; he had already started looking into it. Did the JFP want to work with him to try to get the case re-opened? The CBC would try to locate the brother of one of the victims, he said; maybe we could all meet in South Mississippi and investigate the case as a team. He would soon say in an e-mail that he planned to document a new generation of Mississippians helping the brother of one of the young men look for justice.

That's how Kate Medley and I became part of a team that met up in Franklin County on July 8, 2005, one that Moore would months later write about on the Dee-Moore Coalition listserv, set up after our initial stories appeared: "On that hot rainy Friday in The Evil town of Meadville, Mississippi, two more team members came and joined this new team—a Canadian, a retired soldier and two white southern women." In the same e-mail, Moore also thanked his friend Jerry Mitchell for his past work helping him get information about the case.

But that wasn't all I said to the filmmaker in early June '05. I also told him that I had two major goals: to reveal the truth about a little-known case while other media were patting Mississippi condescendingly on the head for finally bringing "closure" to old race wounds. And I wanted to show the world—and especially the usually myopic national media when it came to anything involving Mississippi—that many people in my state are passionate about telling the whole truth about our past, not to mention our present.

More than anything, I wanted Mississippians to know this fact about ourselves. After growing up in a state where you're harangued for talking about the past—leading many to suffer the pain of our past in silence—my people needed to know that we're in this together. I hoped our involvement in this case would help send that message.

I've long prayed for justice in the case, and all our unsolved cases, but at that point I would settle for Mississippians telling a story in detail if that was all we could make happen.

The reason for my burning desire to see Mississippians tell our own stories is simple: "Outsiders" often get it wrong (as do some of the transplants here who take on these stories). I don't mean that they overdo the horrific details of the crimes that happened here—in fact, they don't usually give enough details to move the victims and the criminals beyond caricatures. Where they tend to screw up is in the complexity of race history and relations in Mississippi. They ask the wrong question: "Has Mississippi changed?" when what they should be exploring is "How has Mississippi changed?"

Not to mention: "What is change?"

Many people in my hometown call our traditional media treatment the "Connie Chung looking for a Klansman" approach. Chung—whom Greer inevitably calls "Ching" or "Chang"—and her "20-20" team deserve big kudos for amazing investigative work in the Natchez area, leading to the conviction of Ernest Avants and laying the groundwork for the 2005 work on Dee-Moore.

But they also employed some drive-by "doorstepping" techniques that turned off many Mississippians who might have been willing to tell them rich, complex stories. Reportedly, Chung barged into Edgar Ray Killen's church on a Sunday morning hoping to grab footage of him; thus, the phrase that has grown to symbolize a reporter parachuting in from somewhere to prove with wide eyes that racists still live in Mississippi.

I think of a European reporter who confronted me on the court square during the Killen trial, his hip square glasses perched on his upturned nose, for salacious details of continuing racism. Separate proms? Rebel flags? All-black public schools?

(Answers: "Well, mine was." "Way too many." "Tragically.")

Perhaps stipulating the fact Mississippi is most known for would help move us to a new plane: There are racists in Mississippi—and most of them would never admit it. That's the part we really have in common with the rest of the country.

Of course, in the pursuit of the Krazy Klansman in the Korner to say something stupid to prove our reputation, reporters miss two important points: First, of course, is that many Mississippians are not racist and are, indeed, fighting to cure that cancer. Secondly, that the focus on the Krazy Klucker (and the FBI Man Who Loathed Him) actually dodges the real story of white supremacy in the state: The "bedsheets" were the terrorist enforcers of a statewide conspiracy bolstered by a tax-funded spy agency and the most prominent men in the state as part of the Citizen's Council.

That's a reality, though, that many Mississippians don't want to face, and many outside media don't bother to report.

"It's good they went after Killen," Ben Chaney, brother of James Chaney, told me during the Killen trial. "But I'm afraid this could be the end. … (The trial) gives the community a chance to exonerate their guilt, but it can also bring another level of distortion."

Chaney, who moved to New York City with his mother after his brother was killed, believes the state focuses on Klansmen like Killen, and now Seale, because the Klan is such a lightning rod, even among people who used to defend them. "People hate the Klan because it represents the worst of the community."

And it allows Mississippians to show righteous indignation without airing all our dirty laundry—especially the shameful acquiescence by most white Mississippians to horrors most prefer never to think about again. "In the '60s, good people did nothing," Chaney told me over coffee in 2005.

Starting with Reconstruction and the dark era of the Black Codes, Mississippi had the most entrenched system of law-enforced apartheid and economic repression to deny black people the ability to build wealth, and many people still benefit from the spoils of that system. Meantime, all of us suffer from the results of those problems through crime and the divide between people who do not understand our shared history, or use its lessons to lift ourselves out of inferiority-complex territory.

Of course, covering this story in context would also highlight the need for fly-in reporters to go back home and do the same thing about the lingering problems of race in their own backyards. Thankfully, some are. Many others are still doing what national media did in the 1960s—reporting on our inequities while downplaying their own.

That's not good for anyone. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned us: As goes Mississippi, so goes the nation.

We Are Not Afraid
I didn't know that Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were brutally executed in my hometown until I was 14. They died in 1964 when I was 3, bringing on one of the most massive national media responses in the country's history. The case lingered until 1967 in federal court, and Dr. King marched on the court square on June 21, 1966, with people my family knew driving cars into the crowd, throwing bottles and hurling epithets as the local officers of the law looked on calmly (perhaps thinking of how they would describe the mess at their next Klan meeting).

Apparently, as a toddler, I stood on the court square holding my mother's hand, watching the mob torment Dr. King. But I don't remember it. I don't remember Dr. King speaking from the curb to the conspirators whom he assumed were listening in the crowd: "They ought to search their hearts. I want them to know we are not afraid. If they kill three of us, they will have to kill all of us."

Once the media attention finally died down, and seven of at least 18 conspirators went away to prison for a few years for conspiracy to violate the men's civil rights, no one said a word about the case. Not one. We didn't talk about it in school. Our parents didn't tell us about it. There was a conspiracy of silence to pretend that all that ugliness, set off by "outsider agitators," would just stay in the past where it belonged.

That meant that the "transitional generation," as I like to call us, were supposed to grow up and love our state and take over the reins without knowledge or understanding of what the people who came before had done, or had refused to band together to stop.

That's all in the past; we don't need to keep apologizing for it; after all, we didn't do it—we white folks have heard those lines over and over and over through the years.

Meantime, the ensuing generations of black Mississippians get a slightly different version. Many think white people don't care. Or worse, that we're still racist, and the law just doesn't let us act out on it in the same ways.

In 2004, Glamour magazine featured Angela Lewis of Meridian—the daughter of James Chaney—and me in a feature designed to introduce race turmoil to a new generation of young women by putting two women from dramatically different backgrounds together. (She and I likely hold the bizarre distinction of being the only two women to have the sister-in-law of Michael Jackson apply lipstick to us at the site of her father's murder.)

Although the writer interviewed us separately, Angela and I got a chance to get to know each other that day and talk about race relations in today's Mississippi. She told us she grew up hidden by her mother, not revealing the identity of her father, because they feared for her life. I told her that I had been obsessed with the death of, and lack of justice for, her father ever since I found out about the murders when was 14, thanks to a CBS TV movie that got my town in a twitter.

When I read the piece later, I was dumbfounded by what she said about talking to me: "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." She had always assumed white people didn't care because no one had told her that many, many of us do, thanks to that blasted conspiracy of silence.

I had run headlong into one of the major results of the shame and reticence of Mississippians to discuss our past, or use it to teach their children. Black and white people did not know how to talk to each other, or listen to each other, because we did not have the tools or the knowledge at hand. Instead, we were blocked by a cloud of defensiveness.

After the Glamour story appeared, I received several e-mails from black and white expatriates around the country who appreciated the JFP's efforts to puncture the shame shield. But one letter writer, from Flowood, saw my embrace of history as an attempt to paint the state as racist, even as she signed a petition my paper was running then calling for the prosecution of the Neshoba County murderers: "I am signing the petition because I do agree that the men should be punished. However, I think you are doing this state a grave disservice in your overall stance. You once again painted Mississippi as a racist state, making it appear to be a state problem, not a national one. You also made it appear one sided, and never once has stated that it goes both ways ... ."

What that Glamour reader did not, or would not, see is that the question of race is not an either-or problem. Race in America is still a burden to bear—W.E.B. duBois wrote in 1903 that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line," and it's still true in the 21st century. In other words, of course there is racism everywhere. Not acknowledging it does not make that untrue.


Since when does that fact abdicate our responsibility to deal with race problems on our own soil—especially considering that black men shed the most blood here in the quest to maintain white supremacy, and its riches for a few, in our state?

A 20-something Jacksonian put a similar question to me soon after we started the JFP.

"Why does it always have to be about race?" he asked me at Hal & Mal's one night.

"Why can it never be about race?" I asked in response.

White Hero Myth
What the Flowood reader did not know when she wrote to Glamour is that I returned to Mississippi precisely because I discovered how racist other places were, too, during the 18 years that I bopped around, trying to figure out where I fit in the world. I had left the day after graduation from Mississippi State in 1983, vowing never to return here to live because I thought our state was the most hateful, bigoted place on the planet.

What I learned out there was that we share the bigotry problem with the rest of the country, even as we manifested ours in the most violent, de jure kinds of ways. I also grew to understand that it wasn't as if the white people in Mississippi were so different from the rest of the country—our ancestors all came here for similar reasons, after all: to profit off the American dream—but that we happened to live in the state that profited the most off slavery at one point.

That, combined with our historic educational deficiencies, turned our state into an ugly place for black people as they tried to break the chains of white supremacy. And the legacy is still with us.

Many people do not look for context, though, when they look at our state's race history. They see us as evil and inferior, even as they often justify their own race problems by pointing out that they "are no Mississippi."

Ahem. Remember the lesson about yelping about somebody else's postage stamp while ignoring your own?

While I was gone, I lived in many places I loved—and every place was steeped in denial about it own race problems—but I grew tired of the bigotry about myself as a Mississippian. Often, both racists and avowed enlightened folks alike assumed I was racist because I was from Mississippi. Gee, thanks. I left home and my mama's biscuits for that?

By 2001, I was tired of the elitism others displayed about my state, and I was sickened by the vote back here that kept the Stars & Bars—a symbol of race hatred if there ever was one—in our official state flag, the one that supposedly represented all Mississippians. If we cared so damn much about what people think (and we do, make no mistake), why in hell would we send the message that we want to be represented by a symbol of Jim Crow, of Klan violence, of ignorant white recalcitrance?

I then decided that the answer to our riddle is simple: It's about the stories, stupid! Our people haven't told each other, and their children, enough (true) stories; therefore, outside media reports define us, and then we return (deserved) defensiveness their direction.

So I decided it was time to come back and tell stories where just maybe, possibly they would make a difference. The burden of spending my youth being lied to about my town's history weighed heavily on me. I wanted to help stop the cycle. Somehow.

I also had grown to bemoan the effects that films like "Mississippi Burning," and to a lesser extent, "Ghosts of Mississippi," had had on both my state and the nation. These types of films—the only ones about "civil rights" that have enjoyed widespread success—defined what people thought about the state's history. That is, black victims who had to be saved by a few white heroes, usually born elsewhere. It is sad when more Americans know the name of a white reporter or a fictional white FBI agent than know the names of black civil-rights heroes like Bob Moses, Lawrence Guyot, David Dennis, Unita Blackwell, or perhaps even Medgar Evers.

The topic of "Mississippi Burning" and its flaws came up outside Mount Zion Methodist Church—which had been burned in 1964 after Angela's father and his friends visited—in 2004 when the Glamour film crew moved there. David Dennis, who had helped oversee Freedom Summer with Bob Moses, had joined us there, along with his son, David Jr. After a camera assistant mentioned how good the movie was, Dennis and I explained to the group why we despised the film, which had opened with the deaths of the three civil rights workers and turned into a myth of white heroism (even turning the wife of one of the conspirators into a heroine) from there.

In other words, the film that had become the textbook of the civil rights struggle for many Americans was a lie. The real story is about the bravery of black Mississippians, assisted by young college students of all races. The real story is not about victims, but about people strong enough to keep turning the other cheek as they were beaten and tortured for challenging the corrupt status quo. The real story is about an entrenched system of white supremacy in which "good" people helped Klan terrorists enforce segregation.

And the real story is about black Mississippians arming themselves against Klan terrorism—a story that is always ignored in the narrative of the Krazy Klucker in the Korner that is played out again and again in the nation's, and the state's, media.

Damned If We Do
When I first returned to the state in 2001, there was little I wanted to see more in my lifetime than people in my hometown coming together across racial divides to (a) apologize for the murders (only former Secretary of State Dick Molpus had done that officially), and (b) call for long-overdue justice.

The veterans of the Civil Rights Movement were my heroes, and I wanted my town to honor what the brave young people of Freedom Summer had done for our state, enabling James Chaney's daughter and me to hug in front of Mt. Zion 40 years later without fear of being shot for doing so.

That's why it surprised me so much to learn how many people do not want Mississippians to face, and embrace, our history.

My first jolt of reality on this point came in 2004 on the 40th anniversary of the deaths of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner; the Mount Zion community hosts a tribute to the young men annually.

But something different was afoot this year. A diverse group of Neshoba Countians—black, white and Choctaw—had formed the Philadelphia Coalition to both apologize and call for justice for the murders, assisted by the William Winter Center for Racial Reconciliation. This was long overdue, and for this child of Neshoba County, it was like a dream come true. Members of the coalition felt the same way; after growing up in such a closed society, believing that Neshoba County would never face its past, this coalition was Earth-shattering for them.

Deborah Posey was a white nurse working on the Choctaw reservation when she joined the coalition. "You need to walk in someone else's shoes to know how somebody else feels," Posey told me sitting in the Killen courtroom, right after closing statements. She knows that facing fears and shame isn't easy for our people. She advised other Mississippians: "Face those fears; I've had to face mine."

But sadly, many people do not want Mississippians to try to make up for lost time. This was never more apparent to me than when I watched a boycott of the 2004 service led by James Chaney's brother Ben—whom I respect for his civil-rights work—because, they believed, Neshoba County was now trying to profit off of the murders. Sadly, the fact that a multi-racial coalition had come together to tell the world that not everyone in Neshoba County wanted the past buried—something the county had, rightly, been long criticized for not doing—jarred the very people who had criticized my town for so long.

The protesters were also upset that the organizers had allowed Gov. Haley Barbour to speak as part of the commemoration. I'm no fan of Barbour, either, and detest the race-baiting political tactics that his then-boss Ronald Reagan perfected at the Neshoba County Fair in his 1980 campaign. But I saw something else in the fact that Barbour asked to speak at the commemoration. I repeat: asked to speak.

One has to understand how entrenched the southern race strategy has been in this state to appreciate the significance. You simply need to rewind political history to 1989 to the 25th anniversary of the murders to get it. Then, Sen. Trent Lott and the rest of the Mississippi delegation in Congress had refused to sign onto a non-binding resolution in Congress honoring the three men. Then, in 1995, Gov. Kirk Fordice belittled his opponent for governor, Dick Molpus, at the Neshoba County Fair for his 1989 public apology to the families of the three men, possibly helping lead to Molpus' defeat.

Just down the road from where the three bodies were found under a dam in July 1964, Fordice said, "I don't believe we need to keep running this state by 'Mississippi Burning' and apologizing for 30 years ago."

As I watched a red-faced Barbour sputter through his speech about civil rights in Mississippi in my hometown in 2004, I could feel a rumble under my feet. Then, months later, when I read an editorial in The Northside Sun accusing Attorney General Jim Hood of prosecuting Killen for "political reasons," I knew why the Earth was shaking.

The southern strategy was starting to crack. Suddenly, it was politically astute in my state to dig up, or apologize for, old race murders. At least one of one of my prayers had been answered.

Please, Can It Be the Last Case?
When one door opens, another one closes, though. Or, put another way, when one prayer is answered, you better start looking out for the media. Especially when you're talking about Mississippi.

I was suddenly living in a state where the political climate was shifting, and even old Klansmen were starting to realize that, at the very least, old murders should be prosecuted. Black people have families, too, after all.

Maybe we could start getting after some other cold cases, I began to hope, especially after the indictment of Edgar Ray Killen—not enough, but a big step.

Except that, suddenly, the world was suspicious about Mississippians' motives. And here in the state, too many people started talking about Killen being "closure" and, surely, "the last case," to hear The Clarion-Ledger call the cold case of the moment.

Huh? We had just gotten to the political tipping point, and they're telling us Killen would be the last case?

Then, CBC called, and we gathered in Meadville within two weeks of the Killen guilty verdict. The collaborative effort would have a number of effects: The world got to hear from Thomas Moore; the U.S. attorney would learn that Seale was still alive; and vitally, our stories would raise awareness about the murders and the victims and increase support for indictments. Another prayer answered.

Reality started setting in again, as various media outlets started scrambling to "own" the story, which truth be known, isn't owned by anyone, but by everyone, as history always is. The indictments of James Ford Seale in January 2007 were the result of a piggyback effect of various media outlets over the years—starting back with book authors Don Whitehead and Earl Ofari Hutchinson, leading to stories by New York Newsday and finally ABC's "20-20," then The Clarion-Ledger, and then the CBC and JFP in 2005. All played an important role in keeping the story alive long enough to interest the next reporters in the chain that led us to the trial of Seale this week in Jackson.

But sadly, working on this case has taught me and my staff that Mississippi is invisible to many in the national media, except when we do something wrong. Or even when we do something right, the media can twist it into doing something sinister.

Twenty days after the JFP's first story about Thomas Moore's journey for justice hit the Internet, The New York Times' Shaila Dewan questioned why southerners are "suddenly" bent on justice in these old cases: "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."

"Dredging up?" That language sounds familiar. But it got worse.

Perhaps the new quests for justice indicated "a spiritual renewal," Dewan wrote. "(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. As I wrote in response to this column in 2005, it hurts that Mississippians get bashed and belittled when we finally start doing what the world harangued us for not doing all those years.

But when it comes down to it, the national media's characterizations of Mississippi are much less important than what we think of ourselves. I have realized through the saga of "dredging up" civil-rights injustice that the way we will continue to grow and heal is by looking the old demons squarely in the face, and challenging the clichés about ourselves that have been around for too long.

Natalie Irby did just that in response to the closing statements of Killen attorney James McIntyre of Jackson, who regurgitated every excuse Mississippians have been force-fed to try to convince the jury that a bunch of outsiders were still trying to tell Mississippi what to do.

She wrote: "(T)he curtain is not pulled back for some national media corps; the curtain has been pulled back for all of us. It is just now that the reality behind that curtain is not being considered taboo by an overwhelming majority of Mississippians. That is nothing of which to be proud."

Mississippians, though, can be proud of any and every effort to tell real stories about our past. And only with those stories will we fulfill Dr. King's dream of our transformation into an oasis of freedom and justice where present-day inequality can be understood and rectified.

Goodbye, Mrs. Chaney

All stories referenced in this piece are available at Road To Meadville. JFP bloggers will post about the trial daily on that blog.

Previous Comments

Incredible. Donna, you need to turn all of these articles into a book. Seriously. What that Glamour reader did not, or would not, see is that the question of race is not an either-or problem. Race in America is still a burden to bear—W.E.B. duBois wrote in 1903 that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line,” and it’s still true in the 21st century. In other words, of course there is racism everywhere. Not acknowledging it does not make that untrue. Sho ya right. If you walk around with your eyes closed, you'll run into walls.
Thanks, L.W. Running a weekly newspaper keeps me pretty busy, but you never know. ;-)
Nice read, although we can hope at some point there aren't any more hate crimes to be prosecuted here. With justice in hand we can go about tearing down the fence that divides us-and we have some powerful forces at work here that keeps that wall as a huge mountain. 8 separate colleges, county and city school districts, there are huge barriers to keep things all neat and separated.
LW., my thought was the same as yours when I finished reading the article, "Donna, you need to turn all of these articles into a book." Also, I too am "serious." I have read lots of books and articles from the Civil Rights Movement; but, to read the assessment and experiences of this brilliant White women gave me chills. Ladd so beautifully described so many of the chilling stories of racism and the effects of the mind set and the thundering silence which continue to propell racism. My therapeutic brain carried me to a parallell with the pneumatics of grieving: SAD, MAD, BAD & GLAD SAD: That the situation exist MAD: That the situation has been hidden for so long BAD: That the situation carries so much shame and heartache GLAD: That there is a LADD with so much compassion, sincerity and understanding - those qualities that are necessary for healing. Note: I attended the Town Meeting at the J Mall last evening. My hat goes off to Natalie. That young lady is truly one to be proud of. Her level of understanding is unbelievable! I didn't realize her position with the JFP. There is a PAST and a FUTURE. Natalie gave those of us who are passing the torch hope for the PRESENT.
I was just thinking about how The Clarion-Ledger really exposes itself with its spooky-looking "Forgotten Killings" tag for this story. The problem is not that the killings were "forgotten" so much as it's that they were tolerated or ignored. What's more, who forgot them? It just seems to me that their tag suggests a white, conservative perspective.
Brian C Johnson
I think that is a bit unfair to put that label on the CL, while I'm sure the victim's families never forgot the injustice, people under the age of 50 will associate those crimes with "ancient history". In that context "forgotten" is appropriate. Furthermore, the simple fact that justice is still moving is evidence that whole attitudes have changed-50 year old cold cases aren't reviewed automatically.
Oh, my God. So many stories lying untold, and now you've told so many - laid it out in black in white, in more ways than one. And so many background stories that were untold (publicly, at least), are here in your article. I just have to keep thanking you for doing what you do, Donna, and hope it never sounds old or trite. God bless - please keep speaking truth to power. I have to admit that this article has left me a little choked up, but it's cleansing.
Thank you, C.W. I just finished an interview with BBC and did one with Irish talk radio earlier today. They both asked very intelligent questions and allowed me the chance to get beyond easy caricatures of Mississippi. The Irish show asked about current-day Klansmen, and I explained that today's brand of racism tends to be more subtle than the terrorist enforcers of yesteryear. I told them both that more Mississippians are now supporting these prosecutions. I didn't sugarcoat, nor did I paint us with broad racist strokes (which I would never do). I think y'all would approve. Also, a shout-out to MPB for a good piece this morning.
agreed on MPB piece - and heard you on there, as I drove to work
The journey to justice has proven to be a long, winding road with unmarked and unexpected barriers; nevertheless, we slowly progress down the road but only because of people like you Donna. You keep us focused and moving in the right direction. Thank you so much. I know that Thomas Moore is grateful for your invaluable championing of the call for justice for Dee-Moore. Isn't it interesting that the trial is starting about the same time as the annual memorial service for Chaney, Goodman & Schwerher at Mt Zion church - Sunday, June 17th this year.
Donna, Great piece. Your decision "it was time to come back and tell stories where just maybe, possibly they would make a difference" resonates with me. Part of the Mississippi story is within the broader context of the National U.S. story. This photo: http://www.bppa.net/events/dec03/forman1.jpg from the 1970s (1974, I think) in Boston during school desegregation efforts - and is one of the many parallel experiences from the North and South. The venom spewed by the likes of Boston School Board member Louise Day Hicks and others in North was equal to that of southern politicians of the same and earlier periods. I appreciate that there is a difference between the de jure and de facto segregations of the North and South, though I do not fully understand the implications. As someone raised in the North during my formative years, your article brought home the fact that I really don't know the Mississippi story, but I do know my story from up there. I am certain of the need to tell stories of the broader institutional racism of the U.S. to understand Mississippi's place. The same is true for a national movement toward reconcilliation. Thanks for making the JFP a primary vehicle for Mississippi's participation in this process. Robert Connolly
Robert Connolly
As a 49 year old white woman formally from Natchez, Ms, I recall as a kid and as a teenager hearing so many stories of klan activities in and around Natchez, and also The former sheriff in Franklin Co. , MS were things I was taught to fear and forget about. I remember a story where the sheriff himself was the leader of of a group resposible for several murders in Franklin Co. If I was a reporter, I would look into All un-solved murders in Adams and Franklin Counties. I bet there would be dozens. I hope I live to see each and everyone solved.

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