“Edgar Ray Killen has likely seen the last of his freedom after a judge sentenced the 80-year-old former Klansman to 60 years in prison for orchestrating the slayings of three civil rights workers in 1964.” [story here…]
The news of Killian’s 60 year sentence for his part in the death of the Freedom Riders 50 years ago prompts some interesting reflections on the part of this northern-born Hoosier-turned-Mississippi-resident. I’ve lived approximately half my life north of the Mason Dixon and the other half south of it. I grew up in a town where seeing someone of any non-Caucasian ethnic group was a rarity. I attended high school and graduate school and had 3 children in a city where as a white male I was in a 23% minority group (Jackson, MS, is 77% African American.) I’ve seen both sides of this cultural/racial debate and my experiences across 31 years leaves me with one startling observation: Mississippi is far less racist than the other places in the north I’ve lived.
Think about it. While it certainly the case that Mississippi was the high-profile center of racial conflict in the 50s and 60s, it wasn’t alone. It’s history as a hotbed of white supremacy is well-documented along with key landmark events in the civil rights movement: the murder of Emmett Till, the Freedom Riders, Medger Evers, Fanny Hamer, and, perhaps most significantly of all, James Meredith and the University of Mississippi. Mississippi’s meteoric rise to prominance as the “bad-boy” of black-white relations in the country, while not altogether undeserved, is more a product of the national media that it is of solitary behavior. And Mississippians, both black and white, have lived with that unfortunate label for nearly 5 decades.
While I will not paint a pristine and innocent portrait of the state (it certainly has it share of faults), I will come to its defense on this point. Mississippi is facing its past and letting justice at last take its course. Mississippi was not alone it is violent and abusive past yet to this writer it appears that Mississippi stands alone in facing up to that past in a very public and legally responsible manner. It’s easy for outsiders to pretend that the Deep South is still the violently racist place it was in the 1950s. It’s also easy to keep pretending that racism only existed here. The dirty little secret is that the Magnolia state did not have a monopoly on such racism. Far from it. The truth may well be, instead, that this part of the land of Dixie is airing and cleaning its dirty laundry. The question is: where are the others?
Anecdotally, my own experiences leave me with a far different impression of reality. Indeed, I’ve heard the comments about the blacks moving in, the unspoken but clearly implied hint of inferiority and unacceptability, the comments and shaking of the head at the thought of inter-racial relationships. I’ve listened to the dispassionate and unconsidered explanations about cultural differences, different ways of thinking, the assumed economic poverty and crime that inevitably follows that certain group of people. No, the racism wasn’t overt, it wasn’t white supremacy and the Byron de la Beckwith “Christian cleansing of God’s nation.” Often, the people speaking would have been horrified to be told they were racist in their remarks or thinking. They didn’t consider black people to be sub-human, just, well, different, and that was enough to necessitate distance. I’ve heard all of that…and not in Mississippi but in the state of my birth (Indiana), in the state of my education (Kentucky).
Of course, Mississippi isn’t without its share of people who would talk like that, but the simple fact is, that’s just not the culture, not really. But to hear the news, to read the stories written by well-meaning but uninformed reporters who live in their own subcultures of unspoken and private racism, Mississippi is an easy target. Unfortunately, such easy and irresponsible treatment of the facts across the last decades has perpetuated the very kind of culture Mississippi has managed to move past. This writer can only hope and pray that those assuming the burden of journalistic integrity and truthful reporting will see the facts of these headlines about Till, de la Beckwith, and Killian for what they are — evidence of a state that is growing up and getting over the past — and will consquently challenge the rest of the country that is often far more racist in practice to engage in equal self-scrutiny and repentance.