Racism lives in Miss.

September 28, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON -- Sometimes, we act as if it just dissipated long ago, all the heat, all the hate, gone one milestone day. Like everybody got religion simultaneously, repented their sins and went forth to sin no more.

We consider ourselves enlightened now, beyond it now, so much so that some of us resent you even bringing it up. Indeed, the very word we use to describe it feels 20th century, like rotary dials and vinyl records.

Racism, the word is. Racism. So frequently misused and overused, you are sometimes faintly embarrassed to use it at all. After all, it's no longer a word that makes anybody say, Oh, my God. It has become sonic wallpaper. Cliche.

Then you read a story from the Clarion-Ledger newspaper of Jackson, Miss. It says the State Fair is opening next month. And that, along with enjoying the fun house and the State Championship Mule Pull, fairgoers will have the chance to shake hands with the chief suspect in the Ku Klux Klan's 1964 murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.

Shake hands.

For those who don't know: Mr. Goodman, Mr. Chaney and Mr. Schwerner went to Mississippi seeking to register black voters. In the South in 1964, that was a crime sometimes punishable by death.

Seven men were convicted of the murders, but their alleged ringleader, a preacher named Edgar Ray Killen, went free after a jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of conviction. According to the Clarion-Ledger, the juror who held out said she could not bring herself to convict a preacher. The 79-year-old Mr. Killen reportedly remains under state investigation for the 40-year-old crime. He has never recanted his hateful views.

Mr. Killen was invited to man a booth at the fair by a lawyer named Richard Barrett, head of a white supremacist group. He intends to hand out cards bearing images of Mr. Goodman, Mr. Chaney and Mr. Schwerner with a circle around them and a line through them. A legend on the card describes the martyrs as communists who "invaded" Mississippi.

Your immediate urge is to ignore it, to sequester it in that far place in the mind we reserve for the atavistic few who didn't get the memo that this fight is over, this hate repudiated so thoroughly that even our word for it has fallen into disrepair.

From where I sit, that urge gives us more credit than we deserve.

Forty years after the bodies of those three men were dug out of an earthen dam, racism has not left us. It has only become a hide-and-seek thing, a did-you-see-it-or-did-you-just-imagine-it game. We ask earnestly: Is Trent Lott a racist or did he just misspeak? Did he mean it like it sounded, or was he simply insensitive?

Our confusion is not hard to understand in an era when racism wears three-piece suits and racists speak fluent PC talk. More to the point, an era where racist beliefs are hidden in policy, concealed in practice, visible in statistics and studies, but never in anything so crude as a sign that says "Whites Only."

So that racists can always plead innocent.

And the rest of us can continue in the self-justifying fantasy that this history ended a long time past.

I am not saying that no hearts changed 40 years ago. Many did. But many only pretended. And some can't bring themselves to do even that.

For proof, go to the fair. Mr. Killen and Mr. Barrett are progress' dark reflection, a revelation of what three-piece suits too often hide, a reminder that history does not end.

Remember them next time you're tempted to celebrate that milestone day when hate just disappeared.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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