Friday, April 16, 2010

ghosts of mississippi

Medgar Evers seemed to have three dreams – to be called “Mister,” to have the possibility of a good education for his children, and to have the right to vote. These seem like such simple dreams today. They were Gordian knots for Evers. Not only were they deferred in his short life but also they were the reason for his murder. I wonder – who are the people today who have dreams that are deferred, who have dreams that could get them killed.

I read an article today in the Washington Post about Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The article was titled, “Rev’d Up: Desmond Tutu Looks Back, Definitely Not in Anger.” It was written to introduce a new biography about him titled, “Rabble-Rouser for Peace.” Like Evers worked against the wrong of white supremacy in Mississippi, Tutu worked against the wrong of Apartheid in South Africa. Both men worked against the wrongs they faced with words and with actions, risking their lives in hopes that their respective societies could become more human places everyone to live. As I read the article I came across this quote by Tutu at the Clinton Global Initiative Conference in New York City in September –

“Religion is like a knife. If you use it to slice bread, it is good. If you use it to slice off somebody’s hand, it is bad.”

As I read this quote I thought of Evers, who used religion to slice bread, and of Beckwith, who used religion to slice off somebody’s hand. Evers and others in the Civil Rights movement used religion for good. Beckwith and others in the white supremacist movement used religion for bad. I wonder – who uses religion for good today? Who uses religion for bad today?
How intriguing to read –

Then one day Evers (Charles) started talking to the Klansmen (Lane Murray and E.L. McDaniel – both ranking members of the United Klans of America), really talking, and they listened. He told them they weren’t enemies, that it was the rich man who kept them both down, poor whites and poor blacks, kept them fighting each other. Something clicked, and they started talking some more.
I am interested in this idea of the “redneck – blackneck” coalition that attempted to form a voting block of the working poor. This raises a question that often comes to my mind as I think about American society – Which issue has a greater effect on lives in American society – race or class? I wonder, was MLK more controversial in the beginning of his public work when he focused on racial issues or at the end of his life when he was focusing on class issues? Are the forces that protect economic power greater than the forces that protect social power? I understand that for most black people, especially black people in Mississippi, the issues of race and class are intertwined in a way that is difficult if not impossible to untwine. But in America as a whole, would there be more resistance to working for socio-economic equality than to working for racial equality?
I will continue to think of the words of Beckwith’s distant cousin, Kim McGeoy, that I found on page 299 of the book –

We’re letting one man stand alone, just like Jeff Davis stayed two years in manacles for the sins of us all…We’re letting one man pay for the sins of people like Ross Barnett, people like Paul Johnson, who stood up for us at Ole Miss.

I wonder if demagogues like Barnett should be help accountable for their words. I think they should.
The book confronted me with the question, “Should this case have been retried?”

…you could talk to just about anyone – black or white – and hear at least one complaint: the trial cost too much, it was unfair to try a sick old man, it was a useless dredging up of unpleasant memories, it was a political maneuver, and it was futile symbolism – they’ll never convict him, what was the point? (330)

I think these are all valid points for an answer of “no” to that question. I, however, think that the case should have been retried. My reasoning starts with a point that I have been thinking about as we have worked our way through this course. Words are important. We can use them to build up or to tear down. We can use them to help make the world a more human place for everyone to live. Or we can use them to dehumanize people until their lives become meaningless to the people around them. Think about the words Judge Thomas P. Brady spoke to the Sons of the American Revolution Hall in Greenwood, Mississippi one night in June 1954. He was a graduate of some of the finest schools in America (Lawrenceville prep school in New Jersey, Yale University, and Ole Miss law school). If good education broadens minds and deepens hearts then he should have been a person who used words to help build a more human society. Instead, he said

At the dawn of history there were three “species of man”: “Homo Caucasius” – the “Great White Raise”; “Homo Mongoloideus” – the “yellow man”; and “Homo Africanus” – the Negro. While the first two races made strides in developing civilizations, he said, “the negroid man, like the modern lizard, evolved not.” (50)

In the speech he went on to hammer away at the greatest fears of white supremacists – race mixing, mongrelization, and the defilement of white women. His speech was published in a booklet form. His words deeply influenced Byron de la Beckwith and shaped his life of hate. Brady used his words to dehumanize black people and this influenced Beckwith into thinking that killing Medgar Evers was only as painful as the pain a woman feels giving birth to a child. To Beckwith, Evers’s life, as well as the lives of all black people, were not as valuable as the lives of white people. This way of thinking and feeling made it easy for a white person to kill a black person.
Brady’s words were used to tear down and dehumanize. I think the trial itself spoke words, too. Those words were used to build up and to help make the world a more human place for everyone to live. They helped people understand that Medgar Evers was a black man and his life was of equal value to all other people in the world.
I do wonder, though, if a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” like the one that was put into place after the Apartheid era in South Africa, would have been more helpful to bring the possibility of justice and healing that the retrial of Beckwith. I know this is the way South African tried to understand and live with the horrors of their past. It is also the way people in Greensboro, N.C. are trying to understand and live with racial killings in that place. I just do not know if this way could truly bring justice and healing. I suppose time will tell.
I was struck by the end of the trial when Medgar and Myrlie Evers’s son, Darrell, locked eyes with Beckwith and made the observation that Beckwith’s own beliefs were choking him. What we believe really matters.

Class Discussion:

One thing that I mentioned in our class discussion was the way the movie “Ghosts of Mississippi” focused on Bobby Delaughter and the way a “white liberal” worked against racism. I commented that this in itself might be an example of racism – why would Hollywood overemphasize Delaughter and underemphasize Myrlie Evers? I noticed that the three black women in our class responded positively to my observation and the rest of our class acknowledged it but moved on to speak highly of Delaughter and his actions. We are a “nice” class – if we do disagree with each other then we disagree amicably and respectfully. I wonder, though, what might happen if we confronted an emotional issue that divided along racial lines in our class. This would seem unfair to our black students because there are three black students and fifteen or so white students in our class. I wonder, though, what might be said.
I notice as I look back over my journal entry that I did not write very much about Myrlie Evers. I was reminded during our class discussion of her remarkable spirit – that she was able to use her gifts and talents to serve others, that she was not crushed by a crushing moment that took her remarkable husband from her life and from their children’s lives. Her vigilance kept open the possibility, the hope, that Byron de la Beckwith would be fairly tried for the death of her husband. Her vigilance also kept open the possibility, the hope, that all of those people who attempted to crush the life out of the Civil Rights Movement through violence and murder would be fairly tried for their heinous acts.

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