As I read Murder in Mississippi by Howard Ball I thought about the debate across America at this time about terrorists, about how to get information from suspected terrorists after they have been captured. As we study the Civil Rights movement in America I find myself sympathetic toward the “liberal trio” of Supreme Court justices Warren, Douglas, and Brennan, the “activist” judges of that time and place. I am thankful that they viewed the Constitution as an organic document that needs to be interpreted in the light of the hearts, souls, minds and bodies of the people it was written to serve. I believe that the people the Constitution serves, and the service itself, is of greater importance than the thoughts and feelings of the men who wrote it. I am thankful that a unanimous court in the United States v. Price decided to reverse and remand the ruling by William J. Cox concerning sections 241 and 242 of 18 U.S.C. (from the 1866 Civil Rights Act) so the government prosecutors could have a chance to prosecute the 18 Klansmen allegedly involved in the civil rights workers’ deaths. I am thankful that President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 so the laws used to prosecute people like the 18 Klansmen would have “teeth” in them so the punishment for the crimes could be equal to the crimes themselves.
I find myself unsympathetic to President George W. Bush’s arguments about the treatment of terrorists today. I question his views on the Geneva Convention and agree that some of the methods he approves of in getting information from suspected terrorists are “un-American.” I wonder, though, how his argument, and the argument of his conservative government, differs from the liberal government of LBJ. I question the use of “any means necessary” (including torture) to get information from suspected terrorists but I found myself applauding the FBI during the MIBURN investigation as the bureau used “any means necessary” to obtain information about where the bodies of the three civil rights workers were located and about who was involved in their deaths. It is disconcerting to find these kinds of inconsistencies in my thinking and feeling.
Once, I read that your political view is shaped by what you see out your back door. I see that this statement is true as we read about and study the Civil Rights Movement in America. Most white Southerners, especially those who benefited from the “Southern way of life,” the “traditions,” the Jim Crow laws that segregated whites and blacks, viewed themselves as “freedom fighters” against a malevolent state (the federal government) and saw themselves as kin to the eastern European countries who were resisting Soviet domination. Most black southerners, when they felt safe to express their views, viewed their state governments and the Jim Crow laws those governments enforced as kin to the vanquished Nazi regime in Germany and saw themselves as oppressed. Which group was right? I suppose it is difficult to speak in terms of “right” and “wrong” today. The idea that our political view is shaped by what we see out our back door is still true today. A white, middle class male is likely to view ideas and events differently than a black, poor female. In a broader sense, those with power seem to decide what is right and what is wrong. “Might makes right.” I am learning to try to see “right” and “wrong” in a way that is expressed by liberation theology, especially in the work of Gustavo Gutierrez (There is a broad work on his thinking by James Nickoloff titled Gustavo Gutierrez: Essential Writings). A medical doctor and anthropologist named Paul Farmer also seems to be trying to see in this way (There is a good book about him titled Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder). Both of these writers understand that those who are in powerful positions in the world need to make a preferential option for the poor and use their power to make the world a more human place for everyone to live. From that perspective I see that most black folks and the Civil Rights Movement in America were right and that most Southern whites and those opposed to the Civil Rights Movement in America were wrong.
As I read Murder in Mississippi I found myself yearning to know more about Bob Moses and Micky Schwerner. I ordered the book Radical Equations by Bob Moses so I can learn more about his thought and action. I am also looking into his Algebra Project to use in my own teaching. I am humbled by the fact that they, along with Goodman and Chaney, could have lived comfortable lives somewhere in America and made a good living for themselves and for their families but that they chose to work for the good of poor, black people in the midst of violent opposition in Mississippi. They all seemed willing to die for their work, and Scwerner, Goodman and Chaney gave their lives for that work. At one point in the book I wondered if the people involved in COFO’s “Mississippi Freedom Summer” allowed their idealism to cloud their judgment, if they had counted the cost of the actions they were planning to take. As I moved deeper into the story I realized that they did. Would it not have made sense to call off the project when the three civil rights workers went missing? I am certain that all of the students received letters and phone calls from their parents that said, “Stop this nonsense right now…what you are doing is too dangerous…your lives are in jeopardy…come home now!” This helps me remember that “doing the right thing” oftentimes does not make sense.
In a section of the Eyes on the Prize video series, there are interviews with white Mississippians who were on the Citizens Councils during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. It was enlightening to hear in their own words their opposition to the civil rights workers coming to their state. They thought of the “outsiders” as hippies who wanted to replace Mississippi customs with hippie culture. They also thought of the civil rights workers as communists. I compared their thoughts and feelings of the civil rights workers with those of the black families with whom those workers (many of them white students) lived. It was equally enlightening to hear in the black families own words their support of the civil rights workers coming to their state. I was especially moved by the story of one black woman who was amazed that white students would come to her house, take food from a community pot in the evening, and sit down on the floor to eat because there was no dining room furniture. The Citizens Council members spoke of the arrogance of the civil rights workers. The black families spoke of the humility of the civil rights workers. White supremacy seemed to be a core belief in the lives of white Mississippians. When the civil rights workers confronted this core belief and showed that it was wrong, the white Mississippians reacted with burning hatred stoked by the hot coals of fear. There is much talk of “fear” in our world today. I must continually ask myself, “What are my core beliefs? Are they being confronted? Am I reacting to this confrontation with hatred and fear or with love and humility? Am I confronting the core beliefs of other people? Are they responding to this confrontation with hatred and fear? What might happen if I responded to hatred and fear with love and humility?
This book raised the important question, “Is there justice in Mississippi?” Some say peace can never come there until the people involved in civil rights murders are brought to justice. Others say that peace can never come by making the past a part of the present. I wonder why some of the political and intellectual leaders of that time, like Governor Ross Barnette and Judge Thomas P. Brady, were not held accountable for their words in the manner of accountability sought in the Nuremberg Trials at the end of WWII. I wonder if a “Truth and Reconciliation Committee” would help bring healing to Mississippi.
During our class discussion Dr. Dunn reminded us that the Supreme Court should make each decision based strictly on the Constitution by the words of the framers of the Constitution. He remarked that each decision must be made outside of the realm of the emotions. He stated that Supreme Court decisions made in the realm of the emotions with the guidance of the morals of a particular people, time, and place are dangerous.
I think I understand the reason behind Dr. Dunn’s argument. There is a temptation to guide the Constitution to say what you want it to say (whether you are a liberal, moderate, or conservative) rather than to be guided by the Constitution. I do wonder, however, how the case of U.S. v. Price would have come out if the court was made up of 9 justices who considered themselves strict Constitutionalists (perhaps if 9 Clarence Thomas’s were on the court at that time). I think it can be equally dangerous to make decisions based on the words of the Constitution rather than based on the spirit behind those words. I know it is difficult (impossible?) to fully understand the spirit behind any law. If we do not try, though, the Constitution can be used to destroy human being instead of building up humanity.
One of the questions that we asked about the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 was concerning the sexual dynamics between the young people involved in the project. Sex is a powerful force. Used in its proper context, it can be a powerful way for two people to communicate hearts, souls, minds, and bodies with each other. Used outside of its proper context, it be a powerfully destructive force for lives and movements.