Looking back for probity

May 20, 2002

JUSTICE DELAYED is better than justice denied.

And when the pursuit of justice is integral to healing wounds that linger from racial transgressions, that axiom's truth becomes even more self-evident.

That's why police are investigating a 34-year-old racially motivated murder that still inspires bitter feelings in a small Indiana town. And that's why they're holding a trial in Alabama to determine whether a former Klansman had anything to do with a 1963 church bombing that killed four little black girls.

Race, sad to say, still dominates questions of fairness and equity in this country. It remains the most powerful aggravator in any debate, dispute or conflict.

Some people believe the way to move beyond that is to simply move on -- to forget about the injustices of the past and look hopefully toward the future. But that's wrong. It's often impossible to go forward without first looking back to find the truth.

Ask the people of Martinsville, Ind. Their town has endured a 34-year drubbing over the murder of Carol Jenkins, a 21-year-old black woman who was stabbed to death by a white man while she was selling encyclopedias door to door.

Many people assumed that because Martinsville was nearly all white and had not historically welcomed blacks, the killing was racially motivated and had been committed by someone who lived there. And the murder was never solved, so the assumption became reality.

As it turns out, the theory was only half right. This week, state police arrested a former Ku Klux Klansman for the murder -- but he never lived in Martinsville. If he was indeed the killer, the town should be better able to come to terms with what happened, and what role its citizens' attitudes played or did not play in the murder. Perhaps the town will even be able to begin to forge better race relations around a common understanding.

But if police hadn't pursued the investigation, and the truth was never exposed, no such healing would be possible.

Similarly, in Birmingham, Ala., Bobby Frank Cherry's trial for his alleged involvement in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing has the potential to inspire important reconciliation.

It may finally put to rest 30 years of disquiet over the murders -- and the failure to hold someone responsible.

A professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham has taken to calling Mr. Cherry's trial (and the ones that preceded it in recent years) "atonement trials," an effort to redress what has been wrong for nearly a third of a century. But one Birmingham man, still bitter over the murders, described the trials as "too little, too late."

Both have a point. But the delayed justice now being pursued in Alabama and Indiana may one day help the two of them -- and the rest of this country -- bridge the chasm between their perspectives.

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