Sins of past still cry out for justice

Conscience: Witnesses are breaking years of silence and calling aging men to answer for crimes of the 1960s.

May 20, 2001|By Jean Marbella

IT IS AN increasingly familiar sight, an aging white man in handcuffs or prison stripes, being led away on murder charges that date back to a distant time and perhaps a different self. Sometimes his hair is going white, or simply going. Usually his face has sagged into jowls or sunken into wrinkles. His back may be stooped by extra pounds or advancing years. However time has treated him, its effect on observers is the same: This tired old man? Is this the hate-spewing bigot who's accused of killing someone solely for being black?

On Thursday, it was 67-year-old Charlie Robertson who walked into York County Courthouse in Pennsylvania .

What separates Robertson from other men who similarly have been forced to face allegations from the past is that he is also York's mayor. In fact, Robertson had just won a primary election race Tuesday, which he hoped would lead to a third term in office, when he was arrested and charged with murder. That, and the fact that the crime took place above the Mason-Dixon Line rather than in the South set this case apart from other recently revisited crimes of the turbulent 1960s, such as the Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls in 1963 and, the following year, the murder of three civil rights workers who had traveled to Mississippi to help register black voters.

But in many ways, the re-visited death of Lillie Belle Allen is just another journey into our nation's unresolved past.

Like a bell, the turmoil of the 1960s continues to reverberate. The sins of the era remain without absolution. The ghosts of its dead demand acknowledgment.

"The echo that rings with me is [former] Senator Bob Kerrey and Vietnam," said David Garrow, an Emory University professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights author. "People's guilty consciences are not just restricted to a civil rights context. People are unable to block out that they contributed to somebody's death, even years later."

Kerrey commanded a team of Navy SEALs during the war in Vietnam. Just as he recently was forced to account for the deaths of Vietnamese civilians during a 1969 raid, so too has killing during the racially turbulent 1960s been dragged back before modern eyes.

Robertson, currently free on bail, was a police officer during York's summer of racial strife.

A grand jury impaneled last year to investigate Allen's death, as well as that of a white police officer several days before her, heard testimony that Robertson urged young white gang members to "kill as many niggers" as they could and provided them with ammunition. Among those he is alleged to have supplied are men accused of shooting at the car Allen was riding in on July 21, 1969. Robertson is not accused of supplying the actual bullet that killed Allen, which was a different type of ammunition.

Allen, 27, and members of her family strayed into a white neighborhood and their car was surrounded by a mob. Allen, a visitor from Aiken, S.C., and rookie police officer Henry Schaad, 22, were killed during a week of rioting in York. No arrests have been made in connection with Schaad's death.

As with other decades-old racial crimes, the investigation into Allen's death required that formerly silent people speak up. In Robertson's case, former gang members and a former fellow officer provided information that led to the mayor's arrest. In the past three weeks, six other men have been charged in Allen's slaying.

"As the decades have gone by, people's guilty consciences become weighty and more burdensome," Garrow said. "These cases aren't being prosecuted now because of better ballistics technology. All of these cases have been reignited because people are willing to admit things that they weren't willing to admit in 1963, 1964 or 1969."

The York case follows several other 1960s-era crimes that have drawn attention. Recently, a jury convicted a former Ku Klux Klan member, Thomas E. Blanton Jr., for the murder of four black girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963.

In Mississippi, prosecutors have reopened the investigation of the 1964 deaths of three young activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Mississippi officials never arrested anyone in connection with their deaths.

President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the FBI to step in and investigate the case, and 18 white men, including the Neshoba County sheriff and his deputy and a number of Klan members, were eventually charged with conspiring to violate the civil rights of the activists. Seven of the suspects were convicted and the rest exonerated.

In December 1999, Mississippi prosecutors reopened the case, citing newly received information, and are considering whether to bring state charges of kidnapping and murder against the nine suspects who are still alive. They are following leads and gathering evidence before deciding whether to present the case to a grand jury, said Lee Martin, special assistant attorney general.

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