Friday, July 01, 2005

Mississippi contrasts, Greensboro parallels

(An edited version of this piece appears as a front page comentary in this week's Carolina Peacemaker. Check out the online version and get a subscription if you don't have one. There is a lot of news covered there that does not find its way into the other media.)

In Mississippi last week, I got a chance to witness a piece of history. I was in the courtroom on the final day of the trial of “Preacher” Killen for the murder of the three civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Earl Chaney in 1964. I heard the last three witnesses for the defense and the closing arguments of the prosecution and defense along with the Judges final instructions to the jury. The courtroom was packed and journalists from around the country were inside and outside feeding the story to the nation.

One of the most interesting aspects of being there was the remaining contrasts in Mississippi society that I think reflect some of the remaining conflicts in our society about race. On the one hand I got to sit next to James Adams in the courtroom then on the other hand I got to have an informal interview with Richard Barrett on the outside.

Adams is a 66-year-old white Mississippian who grew up in a rural area near Jackson, the state capital. His family was so poor that he said he had never had electricity or indoor plumbing until after he moved away from home as a young adult. Adams was glad that there was finally a prosecution for the 41-year-old murders. “I knew it was wrong,” he confided in me, “but I was too much of a coward to say or do anything about it at the time.”

Adams told me about his family being tenant farmers, renting and working the land, while growing up across the road from a wealthy black man who owned his own land. “If it hadn’t been for the money he loaned my daddy sometimes, I don’t know how we would have made it.” I asked him if the Klan had ever approached him and he told me it had not. “My daddy hated those types,” he said. Adams was retired from Kroger as a meat cutter and had been a union member while working there. “We only got about $1 an hour more than the other meat cutters,” he said, but then we remembered that was when other meat cutters were only making slightly more than $1 an hour themselves.

After that conversation, I went outside during one of the recesses and thought I might hear similar stories from other Mississippians who had come to the trial. That is when I met Richard Barrett. “Where are you from,” I asked. “Mississippi,” his reply, “and you?” “I’m from Greensboro, North Carolina.” “Oh, he said, “that’s where they have that ‘Truth and Reconciliation Project. They asked me to come and testify and I told them what Jesus told the Devil. I’ve written about them in my newsletter.” He pulled out his racist tract from his white nationalist, skinhead and Nazi related group headquartered in Learned Mississippi with a front page article about the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I continued to talk to him, only admitting that I knew a little about the commission and allowing him to spew his venom. During the course of the conversation he declared that the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation process was a Soviet styled process, straight from Stalin’s era, he extolled the virtues of the good old days of segregation, suggested that slavery had been a good deal for “Negroes”, criticized what he called “affirmative action juries that included blacks, defended the murder of civil rights workers as a justifiable act in defense of the southern way of life that would be ultimately judged correct by history, suggested that black people had done nothing to earn any of the handouts that they are given and are regularly allowed to get away with murdering whites who display confederate flags and then suggested that we all go back to Africa. All of this was in a polite and reasonably coherent though often confused discussion about half of which I was able to record as he spoke.

As an indication of his lack of knowledge of African American history Barrett used the erroneous example of Jesse Jackson and three others integrating the Woolworth lunch counter as proof that you don’t need a large number of followers to make changes. He has been to Greensboro and led a demonstration in 1987 “in opposition to the Civil Rights Bill.” He bragged about knowing David Matthews and Virgil Griffin the former head of the Ku Klux Klan in this area as well as several others involved in the November 3, 1979 Greensboro massacre. “They came to my birthday party,” he said. Barrett is an attorney who claims to have argued landmark cases before the Supreme Court and also claims to have been offered the opportunity to defend Killen in the murder trial. “I would have made this a political trial. I am here salivating over the prospects of how I would handled this case,” he told me. After hearing the things he had said, I was salivating too. It would have been very interesting to hear his explicit defense of murder on the grounds of political disagreement.

It is ironic to note the similarity between his arguments against the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation process and those of the Greensboro City Council. While I want to be clear in saying that our city council has not expressed openly racist sentiments like his, their arguments against the truth process are identical – that it is not intended to lead to truth and reconciliation but rather to simply forward the agenda of folks who they oppose.

Having listened to James Adams and Richard Barrett, it is clear that there are two Mississippis – a new one still struggling to be born and clarify its direction on the basis of honest criticism of the past, and an old one that refuses to go away quietly while defending its racist unjust history. We have the same choice here in Greensboro to go one way or the other.