Things have been heating up in Philadelphia, and I don’t mean Pennsylvania. (I missed the riots by hours, stepping aboard my plane home as they were developing in the City of Brotherly Love.) Rather, I mean right here in Mississippi. Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter, for his role in the deaths of three civil rights workers during the Freedom Summer of 1964, 41 years after the events occurred. I won’t recap, as more comprehensive accounts of the story are available elsewhere.
I suppose I should be jumping for joy. Sure, he didn’t get convicted of murder. And, sure, he’s lived a long, fruitful life as a free man, while James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman’s bodies have been cold for four decades. And, sure, we knew practically everything we needed to know about the case when it was documented nimbly in William Bradford Huie’s Three Lives for Mississippi… in 1965, just a year after the murders happened.
As you can tell from the above, I’m more restive than festive at this point. I know another onslaught is about to begin. For me, it started as I listened to NPR’s News & Notes during the drive home. The talking heads chatted about what the verdict means for Mississippi, and rather the region could still be classified as a “redneck state.” So, once again, the state finds itself in the national news, and once again the reason is its racial history. I gritted my teeth as I listened.
I’m not sure that my reaction is based on anger and frustration (at the media, or at Mississippi) so much as weariness. Don’t get me wrong. The state’s racial past is sordid, and it’s an embarrassment that the state legislature only got around to ratifying the 13th amendment—you know, the one that outlaws slavery—in 1995. There’s a lot of history, and present-day circumstances, to be pissed about.
Two weeks ago, I was watching the WLBT 6 o’clock news. A story came on about the shootings at a Lockheed plant in Meridian, Mississippi, about two years ago. The killer’s motives were deemed to be racially based, and hence the subtext quickly became the navel-gazing that Mississippi is so good at. Instead of being a recap of a nutjob’s horrid actions, the story became a referendum on what the psycho killer’s acts had to say about race statewide. Family members of victims were asked, “How does this make you feel about racial relations in the state?” and “How far have we really come?”
The reporter asked a series of people how accurate they thought the media perception of Mississippi actually was. The poll was obviously unscientific. Still, it’s worth noting that 70% of the people asked claimed that contemporary Mississippi was not depicted or reflected accurately in the media. On one hand, this isn’t a phenomenal surprise—I think Edgar Ray Killen should go straight to hell, without passing Go or collecting $200, and the sooner the better. But I still get uneasy when people sneer at the state. Most people I know feel the same. Still, the force of this —about 1.5 million people do not believe what newspapers (including those within the state) say about them, and are actively hostile to what is reported—is scary. The people quoted, whether black, white, or Choctaw, were resentful, almost spitting out their words.
To them, and sometimes to me, it seems that every racial incident here becomes not just an isolated encounter but an excuse to examine (lazily) the regional culture at-large. A cigar is never just a cigar. People get resentful of non-Mississippians making blanket value judgments based on blips on the AP wire. But, mostly, they get weary. They get so weary of this that they stop self-examination; it’s too tiresome to look inward when we’re so busy lashing outward. This helps no one, least of all those living in Mississippi.
The News and Notes broadcast had one salient, non-condescending point. It was made by Mississippi Congressional Representative Bennie Thompson (Democrat). I’m paraphrasing wildly, but he said something like this: “This trial needed to happen for resolution more than anything else. We needed the case to have a finishing stamp put upon it.”
Ultimately, that’s why the new Killen trial and the new investigation of the Emmett Till case are important, as painful as they may be, as weary as I may be. The verdict is not the one I wanted, and I wish it had come 40 years ago. But the fact of the trial allows the state to change the perceptions of itself by changing itself. I’d rather we obsess about making ourselves better than making ourselves look better. And the only way to do so is to examine ourselves.
So, the verdict is a step forward, one that actually leaves a footprint in cement instead of fresh Mississippi mud. The murders can now become a landmark, a historical roadside marker, in the state’s history instead of a living, breathing testament to its present. That’s the hope, anyway.