Rituals of atonement

June 15, 2005

IT SEEMS this country may finally be coming to grips with the grim ghosts that challenge its claim to be a bastion of liberty and justice for all.

In re-examining racially inspired killings and apologizing for looking the other way so long, officials around the country are acknowledging the mob mentality once allowed to hold sway here.

Used primarily as a tool to intimidate and control blacks, the ritualized violence of lynching and other forms of message murder practiced primarily in the South and West was also directed at immigrants and Indians. Such brutal practices are completely at odds with the nation's idealized vision of itself. By seeking closure on celebrated cases from the Jim Crow South and securing a formal Senate apology for refusing to outlaw lynching, leaders of the reconciliation movement are lifting the curtain on a shameful era that cries out to be better understood before it can be put to rest.

"Public rituals of atonement" - as Susan M. Glisson, director of the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, called the various means by which the nation is confronting its past - can't be the end of the process, though.

The sad fact that the Senate apology Monday night had to be approved on a voice vote because some lawmakers didn't want to answer to a roll call suggests that the powerful influence of that hateful era lingers. Divisions in this nation - now defined more by class than race - are in some ways more pronounced than ever.

Pangs of conscience were not the driving force in the confluence of timing Monday, which was witness not only to the Senate vote but to the opening in Mississippi of the trial of a reputed Ku Klux Klan leader charged with the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers, and to an FBI investigation into the 1955 killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Chicago boy whose body was recently exhumed in search of new clues.

Instead, it was a coordinated effort by the aggrieved - relatives of murder victims, a lynching survivor and civil rights activists - that pressed for justice with such determination that the system finally responded.

The breakthrough came in 1994, when Mississippi prosecutors won the conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Among the cases that followed were convictions in Alabama in 2001 and 2002 of Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton Jr. for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls. Other crimes of the civil rights era are also getting a new look.

The Senate's bid to make amends for the chamber's refusal to empower federal authorities to stop widespread lynching tolerated by almost every state was prompted by activists who provided pictures and personal accounts of these killings, which were often festive public events.

Growing influence of the black vote no doubt played a role in the eagerness of 84 senators to sign on as co-sponsors of the apology - and even in the cowardly refusal of others to be recorded on the issue.

Thus, this settling of old accounts is a prelude to making genuine progress at last toward true equality - not only before the law, but in housing, education and health care. That's what it will take to ensure liberty and justice for all.

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