Yesterday I stood in the spot where my Neshoba County neighbors executed Jim Chaney, Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner 37 years ago last month. It was over 100 degrees in Mississippi just like it was June 21, 1964. Stepping out of an air-conditioned car three-tenths of a mile off Highway 19 South on what the FBI called Rock Cut Road -- I never actually heard locals call it that -- I felt dizzy and slightly nauseous when the Dixie humidity hit my forehead.
On my way to Neshoba County from Jackson, I had passed two gaudy floral wreaths alongside the 25 bypass. Those impromptu memorials commemorate the exact spots where loved ones died in car accidents. They're a way to share the grief, to remind strangers that life is fleeting, to warn other drivers to be careful and, mostly, to honor the memory of the dead. They were here; now they're gone; please remember them.
There is no memorial, though, on the patch of Mississippi road where otherwise "good" family men played out a brutal, shameful, cowardly murder plan on behalf of the state's white majority. White Neshoba County has never honored the three young men who died in my neck of the woods for trying to help our black neighbors register to vote. Neshoba County has not apologized. It has not yet tried its murderers, although the case is open again. Many locals would rather everyone just forget that unfortunate incident ever happened. Yesterday, only a Bud Light can, a plastic cup from the Choctaws' Silver Star Casino, a ripped credit-card statement from Sears, a patch of green moss adorned the patch of earth. A memorial there probably wouldn't make it through the first night, said my escort, a Mississippian who never left, who has fought my hometown's bigotry for the last 33 years, who yearns for closure. I nodded sadly: He's right, I know.
This week the Clarion-Ledger, the formerly blatantly racist and now slightly, ever-so-gingerly enlightened, daily Jackson newspaper, reported that the NAACP had stopped short of a boycott of Mississippi, but had advised its members to avoid the state. It's time for payback for that 2-to-1 vote in April to keep the hateful old Confederate Stars & Bars symbol in the state flag. "But, the vote is cast," editorialized the now-resigned daily paper, which had supported dumping the old hate symbol. "Mississippians now can only seek to counter negative images as much as possible and be about the business of promoting racial reconciliation."
Therein lies the rub, of course. How do you promote racial reconciliation in a state where two-thirds of the electorate isn't even willing to consider how harmful it is to all of us to live under a symbol of terrorism? Whose national elected officials have refused to support a resolution to honor Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner? Where most white people (and too many blacks) do not know that the state had the worst "Black Codes" in the country after we lost the War of Northern Aggression? Or that the state Legislature voted to dismantle the public schools rather than integrate them? That crowds of Mississippians laughed hysterically every time then-Gov. Paul Johnson called the NAACP "niggers, apes, alligators, coons and possums"?
A recent exchange on the Clarion-Ledger's letters page well captured the disconnect that many white Mississippians suffer from. A white letter-writer said it's time for blacks to forgive and move on now that the people have spoken and the flag is safely in place. A local African American responded: But white Mississippi hasn't asked for forgiveness. They just want to pretend nothing bad ever happened.
That nails it. Here in the Bible Belt, we refuse to ask for forgiveness, to say we're sorry, to stand up and say we're really ready to move on, to buck up and pack away symbols of our Southern white aggression. Of course, no one was really asked to during the campaign to update the flag. It wasn't about race, you see. Mississippians were assured over and over again that the election was about being becoming a successful jewel of the New South, attracting good jobs, grabbing a piece of that old New Economy. We didn't hear much about Emmett Till or Medgar Evers or Jim Chaney or the Sovereignty Commission; changing the flag was plain old good for business. Meantime, the rather-stealth campaign -- financed by the likes of Netscape co-founder Jim Barksdale and actor Morgan Freeman, both natives -- focused on turning out the new-flag folks. They hoped the bigots would just stay home. Not to be: Two-thirds of Mississippians voted to keep the shameful side of our heritage firmly in place.
The new-flag proponents missed the turn on this one -- although, ironically, the flag vote spotlighted how in denial the state still is about its history, and that's painfully healthy. If there was ever a time that, soul-bearing, gut-wrenching honesty is needed in the state of Mississippi and the country, it's now. I, too, know there are many decent people in the state. I also believe all of the good ones would vote to rip that Confederate flag off the pole, or convict the murderers of the three civil-rights workers, if they were forced to confront our history rather than pretending it never happened. Mississippi historian David Sansing said it well at a Willie Morris birthday celebration in Yazoo City in May: "[Mississippians were] asked to do the right thing for the wrong reason ... so we could attract factories and plants ... This is a soul, heart, spirit issue -&endash; not a financial issue. We did not give people the chance to do the right thing." I almost did cartwheels down the aisle in agreement.
So what now? To hell with Clarion-Ledger-style resignation: You can't reconcile your checkbook until you see your mistakes. Mississippians need a huge mirror propped in our faces so we're forced to admit our state's sins. We must talk to each other and to our kids about how elected officials, law enforcement, business leaders, Klansmen and everyday people, whether actively or silently, were complicit in the conspiracy to disenfranchise and terrorize our black citizens and those who tried to help them. We must take back the debate from bigots hiding behind states' rights banners. (From the logic used by old-flag zealots, and from some of Dubya Bush's appointees' take on the Civil War, you'd think the states should have the right to castrate, maim, terrorize and disenfranchise voters without any federal authority stepping in.)
Whether by prosecuting terrorists, mothballing racist symbols, erecting and re-erecting memorials to our heroes or just by speaking the truth, we must face the people we have hurt the most. We should say, simply, "I'm sorry for what my neighbors and other whites did to you and your families. We won't let it happen again. Please forgive us." Chances are they will.
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