Wednesday, March 9, 2005
Never say things can't change. Sometimes remarkable change comes, and it seems so obvious that people barely notice. That was apparent recently when both the Mississippi House and the Senate voted to rename two stretches of highway after civil-rights martyrs: Highway 19-South out of Philadelphia after Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner and US-49 East would be renamed Emmett Till Memorial Highway, in honor of the black teenager beaten to death by white men in 1955 in Money, Miss.
In a perfect world, this wouldn't be a big deal. The highways would have been named for them long ago—or, better yet, the racist murders would never have happened, Jim Crow would have been simply a man's name, and the Confederate battle emblem wouldn't be in the state flag and wouldn't symbolize race violence. Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran would not have been asked to sponsor a resolution to honor the anniversary of the civil rights murders in 1989 (which they refused to do) because the men would still be alive and well, living with their families.
Emmett Till would be in his 60s by now. The Council of Conservative Citizens never would have posted Haley Barbour's grinning photo in 2003 because they would have had no reason to exist. Marsha Barbour wouldn't have sent out a campaign notice proudly displaying the couple's Colonel Reb wedding cake in order to appeal to, well, certain voters.
But that's not the world we live in. Or at least the one we've been living in.
In this Mississippi, coded racism has been a way of life. The political "reality," the conventional "wisdom" that everyone knows but doesn't want to talk about in public, has been that white politicians, the reasoning goes, must support the race status quo, and Colonel Reb, and the Rebel Flag, and not piss off the members of the old White Citizens Council, in case there are any still around, or they just can't get elected. Politician after politician has dragged their sorry asses in front of the CofCC to inexplicably kowtow to a supposedly dead lifestyle of days gone by. Or so they tell the rest of us when they aren't telling the old bigots what great citizens they are.
But right now, in 2005, there are cracks in the racist armor, in the "southern strategy" used to divide us for so long. Today there are signs of intelligent life out there, indications that at least some politicians—yes, even white conservative ones—are growing some balls when it comes to speaking up for what is right.
Personally, it gives me chills to think of Highway 19-South being named, named after Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. You may think of this as a simple symbol signifying little, but it is a radical and sharp lunge forward if you stop to allow its import to fully sink in—or don't rush past the intense symbolism with kneejerk cries of "It's not enough!" as some are prone to do.
Every time I've visited the spot where the three men were killed, just off Highway 19-South on Rock Cut Road (at least the FBI called it that), I've been struck by what's not there.
There is no sign, no marker, no memorial, nothing. Sometimes there's trash. Sometimes just nothing. It's just a spot, a little crossroads where two roads came together. The former editor of the Neshoba Democrat, Stanley Dearman, has worked for years to bring the case to justice. He took me to the spot the first time I stood there a few years back, wanting to see a memorial. "Someone would probably just tear it down," he told me, shaking his head.
But it is a spot that needs to be remembered. A coalition from the Sheriff's Department, the Mississippi Highway Patrol, the city police, the Ku Klux Klan and the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (that's where they got the license number of the men's station wagon) chased the three civil rights workers, in town to help blacks register to vote, down Highway 19 South from Philadelphia and then drove their car to this little bump in the road where they executed them. Right now, for the first time, one of the alleged conspirators—Edgar Ray Killen—is facing murder charges in the case. That's good, and that's right. Finally.
But a danger still exists that, once that trial is over and Killen goes to jail or not, the case will once again be relegated to the back burner. People could forget that it was more than Killen involved—it was a conspiracy that involved every level of Mississippi government and white society. Naming Highway 19-South for the three men is a step toward that. It is one people will notice every day that they pass those highway signs on their way to Pearl River Resort or down to Meridian.
And it is a step that the state has, until now, collectively refused to take. It is the next step from a diverse coalition forming a task force to call for their murders and to hold a county-wide commemoration last June in "white" Neshoba County. Until then, the murders had only been commemorated in "black" Neshoba County—in Independence Quarters, at Mount Zion Church, with a historical marker purchased by a black radio station. Meantime, white politicians (and sometimes black ones) scrambled to make sure the race coding was firmly in place.
However, that is changing—and this is significant. When Gov. Haley Barbour showed up last summer—albeit in a stumbling, red-faced way—to speak at the Neshoba County memorial event, I felt our world shake a little. Many folks didn't like to see him there, but I saw a sign. This was a sign that politics can change in Mississippi. It can simply be a different world here when white politicians no longer believe they can get away with coded race politicking—and, in fact, believe that it is the politically astute thing to actually support civil rights tributes. Or for editors of white-flight newspapers to complain that it's politically correct for politicians to want to convict race murderers. Imagine that. Or when Mississippi lawmakers from podunk towns vote in favor of naming a state highway after civil rights workers and another after Emmett Till.
Look out. The change is a comin'.
Ms. Ladd I was looking for information on the assertion that Johnny Horton was a racist -- that led me to David Alan Coe and to a discussion you were involved in about Rap music and other things -- I registered here and have been reading all evening! Keep up the good work!