Latest News

This summer, America revisits civil rights era

WASHINGTON—The ghosts of America's violent civil rights battle are haunting the headlines again this summer, 40 and more years later.

Is there some larger meaning to the reappearance of these ugly events now, so many years later? Might they have any impact on how America feels about and deals with race?

Edgar Ray Killen, 80, a former Klansman, was convicted of manslaughter Tuesday in the 1964 killings of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Miss.

On June 13, the Senate apologized by voice vote, without dissent, for failing to outlaw lynching in the 20th century despite pressure to do so from seven presidents.

On June 1, Wachovia Corp. issued a written apology because two of its historical predecessor banks had exploited slaves. One bank used slaves as collateral on defaulted loans in the 1800s.

And, also on June 1, the FBI exhumed the body of Emmett Till, hoping to find new clues to the gruesome death of the 14-year-old African-American who was abducted in 1955 after he reportedly whistled at a white woman in Money, Miss. His battered body was found in the Tallahatchie River. At the time, two white men were tried for his murder and acquitted by an all-white jury.

After long years of prodding by the civil rights community, persistent investigation by the Clarion-Ledger newspaper of Jackson, Miss., and pleas from surviving family members, these dark moments from America's racial past are being examined anew. Will it do any good?

Former President Clinton thinks so. He sees the Mississippi trial and the Senate's apology as examples of America working to heal its racial wounds.

"I think it's a kind of trying to clean the slate and tell the truth," said Clinton, who spent much of the first year of his second term examining the national divide over race. "I'm really encouraged and hopeful. It's evidence of the maturing of the society," he said in an interview with Knight Ridder.

Christopher Edley, the African-American dean of the University of California Law School at Berkeley and a former U.S. Commission of Civil Rights board member, thinks not.

"They have no impact in penetrating the consciousness of the American people on race," Edley said. "Nothing short of a campaign of relentless education led by a broad group of political and civic leaders will help create progress."

"What you're seeing is a moral advance here," said John McWhorter, who analyzes race relations for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative New York research center. "It's a point of enlightenment that should be a wake-up call to the chorus of people claiming that America is turning a blind eye to racism and its effect."

Morris Dees disagrees. He founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, which long has provided legal help to those battling racism. He acknowledges as significant the Killen trial, the Till exhumation and the 1994 trial that convicted Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers. But he dismisses the Senate's nonbinding apology as a symbolic gesture.

"It doesn't mean nothing," Dees said. "It's nice, but would they be willing today to do something substantive like make a federal crime for violence based on sexual orientation? It's politically unpopular with the religious right. Twenty-five or 50 years from now, they (senators) will be apologizing for not taking action against that."

Clinton argues that symbolic gestures can help prompt change.

As president, he issued a formal apology in 1997 for the so-called Tuskegee experiments, in which treatment was withheld from a group of black men with syphilis in a federally funded study from 1932 to 1972.

He also expressed regrets for the U.S. role in the African slave trade during his 1998 six-country African tour.

"I didn't know saying you're sorry would mean anything to anybody," Clinton recalled. "But when I did, it meant something to people."

———

Four events this month have put the violence of the civil rights era back in the headlines, giving America new cause to reflect on racism and justice:

_Former Klansman Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter Tuesday in the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss.

_On June 13, the Senate apologized by voice vote for failing to outlaw lynching in the 20th century.

_On June 1, Wachovia Corp. issued a written apology because two of its historical predecessor banks had exploited slaves.

_On June 1, the FBI exhumed the body of Emmett Till hoping to find new clues in the gruesome death of the 14-year-old African-American, who was abducted in 1955 after he reportedly whistled at a white woman in Money, Miss.

———

(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LYNCHING

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): EMMETTTILL

Need to map

Related stories from McClatchy DC

  Comments