Racial reconciliation: Mississippi leading the way?

In "The Past Is Never Dead: The Trial of James Ford Seale and Mississippi's Struggle for Redemption," Harry N. MacLean explores the issue of racial reconciliation. The book wonders whether the conviction of former Klansman Seale can atone for an era of racially motivated sins. We asked MacLean to reflect on what light Mississippi's efforts shed on racial progress across the country.

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In June of 2007 former Klansman James Ford Seale was convicted of conspiracy and kidnapping in the murder of two black youths in Southwest Mississippi in 1964. The Supreme Court recently refused to hear an appeal, leaving the law unsettled as to whether a statute of limitations applies to the prosecution of two dozen similar cases.

With the successful prosecution of Seale and several other men such as Edgar Ray Killen in 2005 and Byron De Law Beckwith in 1998, Mississippi now leads the South with a perfect record of eight for eight in the prosecution of Klansmen for race murders in the 60s. Mississippi, it is said, is trying to come to terms with its past.

While some cynics see the prosecution of these old Klansman as a ploy, the state has made other efforts at shaking off the grip of 130 years of slavery and Jim Crow. Mississippi recently passed legislation requiring the teaching of Mississippi civil rights history in K-12, for example, and several years ago Ole Miss banned the Confederate flag from the football stadium.

In Philadelphia, Mississippi, best known as the town where civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were murdered in 1964, the predominantly white electorate recently elected a black mayor.

But for Mississippi, it's two steps forward and one step sideways. Unable to renounce all symbols of its past, the state recently voted to keep the Confederate Stars and Bars in the state flag, and marble statutes of Confederate soldiers still stand tall and proud in front of courthouses throughout the state.

The path to redemption for Mississippi is long and uncertain, with many unanswered questions. Must there be a formal apology for the past? If so, who gives it and to whom? Are reparations on the table?

The black students at Ole Miss whom I spoke with seemed less concerned about apologies and symbols than moving forward with a good education and jobs. Although students still segregate themselves socially, there are several bi-racial groups deeply committed to the notion of racial reconciliation

No one is quite sure what true racial reconciliation would look like, but in deeply religious Mississippi it would seem to be grounded in Biblical notions of forgiveness. In a stunning moment in the Seale trial, Charles Marcus Edwards, Seale's fellow Klansman and complicitor in the crimes, asked the victims' families for forgiveness from the witness stand (which they later granted). Whether Mississippi must ask for forgiveness in order to receive it is both a theological and political question.

In Mississippi's present, there is a good will among the races that can seem almost disconcerting to an outsider. Race is discussed openly and frequently, among whites, among blacks, and among blacks and whites. And it is a different conversation.

In the Seale case, several black and white prospective jurors alike readily admitted to the difficulties they would have in putting their prejudices aside for a fair trial.

Unlike in Northern states, 37 percent of the population of Mississippi is black, making race impossible to keep in the shadows. The relatively open conversation about race here would seem a critical ingredient in movement toward overcoming the past and achieving genuine racial reconciliation anywhere.

In a strange twist, Mississippi may be leading the way.

By Steven E. Levingston |  November 11, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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