It used to be that murders of black people didn't matter. They still don't matter enough, but they get taken a lot more seriously than they did back when I was a baby. Then, an angry white person, a mob, or a sheriff or deputy could murder an African American in cold blood, and it didn't matter to the state's white authorities and citizenry.
That was life in Mississippi, and the South, during Jim Crow timesa much more violent, crime-filled, terror-filled time than we live in today, thankfully.
Then, even if witnesses identified the culprit, chances were he wouldn't be arrested. Or, he would be arrested and then released. Or, he might even go before an all-white jury in a rigged judicial system and then go on home to his wife and family. There was no justice.
Meantime, families of black victims had no rights. They might even be targeted themselves if they spoke out, or even talked much about their loved one who died a brutal death because they spoke to a white woman, wanted to be fully paid for their work, tried to register to vote or witnessed another black man being killed. There were no victim's rights for them.
Adding horrendous insult to atrocious injury is that even as our state has moved out of the Jim Crow era and left our bloody past behind us in most ways, the families of those victims still suffer enormously: Many people, especially white people, and especially those in power, do not want to talk about the families' loved ones. And when they do get brought up, too often it is as a pawn in a gamewhether for political cover or a possible Pulitzer Prize. And if the presumed murderer is no longer alive, many people do not believe their stories are worth telling. Who wins a prize for simply telling the real story of a victim?
Meantime, the families endure. They get lip service from time to time, or a visit or call from an elected official when it's their loved one's minute in the spotlight. But, usually, no arrest results, and the reporter and the law-enforcement officials move onto the next possible prize. Nothing to see here.
But there is plenty to see, and learn. I've rarely witnessed more pain than watching a grown man cry tears the size of pennies as he talks about his daddy who was blown to pieces because he wanted to help black people register to vote. Most of these families have had no closure at all; even if there has been an FBI or a state investigation of some sort, they are not told the conclusion, if there really was one.
In some cases, the authorities won't share old files, saying there is an "open" investigation, but family members are never interviewed, or they're told the unknown assailant is dead. Certain reporters and newspapers get the files and hoard them away without bothering to use the documents to tell the rich, layered stories of the victims' lives, and deaths.
They don't even use what they know for a teachable moment, or a lasting tribute.
These stories, these cold cases, are filled with teachable moments for all of us. By spending time with the families, and getting to know them, you learn what a great American hero really waspeople who kept fighting for rights even though they knew pretty much for certain that they might not live another day. These people were willing to give their lives for the future of us all. This was true courage.
A few months ago, I was asked to go to Mims, Fla., to speak at the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex. I admit that I knew little about Mr. and Mrs. Moore when I got the invitation from William Gary, a long-time NASA engineer and an African American man originally from my hometown of Philadelphia, Miss. He had read my work about Charles Moore and Henry Dee, as well as our stories about Wharlest Jackson and the three civil rights workers in our hometown, and wanted me to speak there.
I started reading about the Moore familyarguably America's first civil-rights martyrs, who were executed lying in their bed on Christmas Day 1951 by a bomb placed underneath it. Their crime: As educators and NAACP leaders, they fought for equality in the schools and justice for young blacks lynched in their area. They knew the dangers, and they did what they had to do anyway.
The Moore family waited many years for a resolution to their parents' murder. They long believed that a racist sheriff had killed them, but a long-overdue investigation by the state attorney general finally established in 2007 that four Klansmen, all now deceased, had killed them.
The investigation was not done in vain. It brought closure, even if it didn't result in a conviction. It filled historical holes.
Now, their story is being told more often, and people like Mr. Gary are reaching out across state lines to people like me to help make sure that it's told, and that two heroes are honored in Florida and beyond. And make no mistake: This story-telling is not simply to honor the victims, or their families; it's to help the rest of us, especially those of us who are white, face our demons and heal our community's wounds. Real stories help us feel our neighbors' pain, to know how it would hurt and scar for loved ones to be just taken off the planet, and the people we live and work with say to just forget about it, that it's old news.
We've all heard the hackneyed response to re-opening old civil-rights-era cases from people who'd rather forget: That's in the past. I didn't do it. Murders still happen today.
I knew those responses were wrong, and immoral, but I didn't entirely understand why until I stood in the woods in Franklin County and saw the pain in a brother's eyes when he told me that no "official" had cared about his brother's murder, and that even his mother was afraid to talk about him again.
A society that allows that response, or lack of one, is crippled for all of us; we are all victims when we do not have the courage to face, try to comprehend, and then apologize to the citizens that our society murdered simply because they wanted the same rights and justice that white Americans enjoyed.
When a son, now grown and gray, tells me between loud sobs that law enforcement has never told him or his mother or siblings what they believe happened to his daddy, and who did it, I know we are broken until we go back and tell those stories in great detailuntil we want to go back and tell the stories of people that our society brutalized with our acquiescence and silence, and then murdered again by purposefully forgetting their stories.
These stories are our history. And they will provide a roadmap to our future if we will take time to listen to them.