The Killen Trial and the Language of Racists

Sunday, June 26, 2005

The Killen Trial and the Language of Racists

It has been a few days since a judge sentenced Edgar Killen, the former Klansman, to 60 years in prison for the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. I have read a lot of articles on the case, including post-sentencing articles, but this New York Times article does the best job of painting a picture of the racism that existed in that era, the racism that lingers on, and the code language that helps to fuel it:
[Local newspaper owner Stanley] Dearman, who has long called for the killers to be brought to justice, is himself distantly connected to the case. Mr. Killen has said he was at a funeral home on the night of the killings. The visitation he attended was for the 4-year-old daughter of Carolyn Barrett, who is now Mr. Dearman's wife.

... Mrs. Dearman's brother, Harlan Majure, who was at the funeral home that night, testified for the defense on Monday that he saw Mr. Killen at the visitation, and that he thought the Klan was a peaceful organization that "did a lot of good."
Just for the sake of clarification, Majure wasn't saying in his testimony that he thought then (i.e., in 1964) that the Klan "did a lot of good" -- he thinks today that the Klan "did a lot of good."

Both the Klan and the racist Southerners who supported it actively or passively often inflamed passions against civil rights workers by designating them as "outsiders." (I guess the term "carpetbaggers" might have seemed slightly dated.) It's worth noting that Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his eloquent 1963 letter from the Birmingham jail largely to counter local pastors' criticism about "outsiders coming in" to Brimingham.

This "outsider" theme was prevalent in '64, as the Times article explained:
Editorials and news accounts from the 1960's portrayed the Freedom Riders and other civil rights supporters who came [to Mississippi] as unkempt intruders looking for trouble.

"A lot of people to justify things say, 'Oh, they were filthy,' " Mr. Dearman said, "and that seems to be all you need to say."

Deborah Posey, a (Neshoba County) resident, recalled that when she finally saw photos of Mr. Chaney, Mr. Goodman and Mr. Schwerner on a poster offering a reward for information about their disappearance, she was shocked at how well-groomed they were. "I was told, 'Well, they cleaned them up for the pictures,' " Ms. Posey said.
Sadly, Killen's defense attorneys picked right up where the White Citizens' Council left off, using this traditional tool of racism in the hopes that it would discredit certain witnesses in the eyes of the jurors:
Throughout the trial, the defense subtly underscored the fact that many involved in the case in 1964 were not from the area.

"You were one of the F.B.I. agents sent down here to investigate the civil rights cases?" a defense lawyer, James McIntyre, asked a retired F.B.I. agent during cross-examination.
Apparently, the prosecution felt that this "outsider" theme needed to be attacked head-on:
Before the trial began, the district attorney, Mark Duncan, extracted a promise from potential jurors. "Tell me you'll treat them like they were from here and were our neighbors," Mr. Duncan said.
But I thought this was the greatest irony from the Killen trial:
... many in the courtroom were indeed neighbors, their histories intertwined in births and funerals, weddings and business deals.

... Even the judge, Marcus Gordon, and the defendant, a preacher and sawmill operator, are connected; Mr. Killen presided at the funerals for Mr. Gordon's parents. No one has accused Judge Gordon of favoring the defense. Rather, people seem to accept such connections as inevitable in Neshoba County, with its population of only about 28,000.
And Judge Gordon's 60-year sentence for Killen strongly suggests that bigots' attempts to pit neighbors against demonized "outsiders" are no longer as potent as they once were.

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