Condemn racist past, but confront the present

February 20, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Far be it from me to dispute so great an American observer as Faulkner, but sometimes the past really is past.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, The Sun reported on Sunday, is thinking of creating a "cold case" squad that would reopen unsolved racial crimes from the civil rights era. The point would be to apply modern forensics, as well as our more enlightened sensibilities, to right the wrongs of 40-some years ago - sort of a CSI: Mississippi Burning, I suppose.

In recent years, other states have managed to bring long-delayed justice to bear on some of the most heinous firebombings and murders from the civil rights era. But, while surely Maryland has some old civil rights business to take care of as well, I'm not sure how far a redress of the past will go in the very real present.

Sometimes I think it's easier for us to look to the past because the villains were so much clearer then - the hooded Ku Klux Klan members, the lynch mobs, the police with their snarling dogs and fire hoses, the officials who looked the other way.

Today that clarity is often missing. When you look at what plagues African-Americans as a group - the higher poverty, dropout and incarceration rates, for example, or the number of children growing up in single-parent homes, or the lingering educational and employment lags, it's harder to point to a villain. Because there is no single one but a multiplicity of them, and they're societal problems, not necessarily individuals walking around in hooded robes.

Take, to pick just one example, the shrinking, yet persistent gap in academic performance: The Sun reported last year that the pass rate for African-American students in the state's high school algebra proficiency test rose from 35 percent to 52 percent, but that still lagged behind the 88 percent rate of white students.

So who is to blame for that? Their teachers? Their parents? The school board? The students themselves? Or the ever-popular "system"? It's not easy to point to a single culprit, especially one who can be arrested and tried and sentenced for a criminal act.

That, I think, is part of the appeal of resurrecting these old crimes from the civil rights era - not only should these cases have been prosecuted long ago, they also represent a certain moral clarity that is harder to find today. In 2001, I covered one such case - a suspect in the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala., was finally coming to trial, more than 37 years after the blast killed four little girls and galvanized the civil rights movement.

It made for riveting courtroom drama as witnesses testified to decades-old events and prosecutors played scratchy old tapes made by informants - including one in which the suspect, Thomas E. Blanton Jr., complained that he couldn't see the effects of his "handiwork" because authorities had blocked off the bombing site that Sunday morning. And it proved to be an exceedingly satisfying trial as well, when Blanton was convicted, as was another suspect the next year.

Yet, even then, I had to think that justice delayed in a sense was indeed justice denied: By the time the old Klansmen were imprisoned, they'd already lived their prime years as free men. Still, symbolism has its place, and there were many in Birmingham who believed that the convictions, however long overdue, helped show the world that their city finally had buried its Bull Connor past.

Carl O. Snowden, the longtime Annapolis civil rights activist, said that even if Maryland doesn't have cases of similar notoriety, tying up the loose ends of our own past is important - not just to history, but to the present and the future.

"There is a purpose to be served in having closure," said Snowden, whom Gansler recently appointed his director for civil rights, a new position in the attorney general's office. "For people who experienced racial injustice, it says the government cares what happened to you. ... And it's a huge deterrent to future activity."

Snowden says he's gotten about a half-dozen calls from people since the news about the proposed cold-case squad broke this weekend, suggesting that cases that might be investigated. They would be reopened only if new evidence has materialized, he said, and their prosecution wouldn't come at the expense of current crimes.

Which is good, because it seems to me there's plenty of unfinished and much more current business that needs to be addressed, if you really want to do something to redress the inequities that plague African-Americans.

There's that alarming research by the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute that found that on any given day, some 52 percent of Baltimore's African American men in their 20s are either incarcerated or on parole or probation. I don't see how prosecuting a civil rights case from decades ago would have any impact on those young men, or the ones who have dropped out of school or can't find work.

But Charles M. Christian, a distinguished professor at Coppin State University, says it's all part of a "continuous and seamless thread."

"It has always been my impression that if we refuse to look at the past, we're likely to repeat it," said Christian, a contributor to The State of Black Baltimore, a book published in 2004 by the university. "Many of the issues that confront young black men may have to do with this kind of history that is unresolved."

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