'Mississippi Burning,' 41 Years Too Late

Jury selection began Monday for a defendant in the so-called Mississippi Burning case — the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964 that ignited the Civil Rights movement. But what can this new prosecution accomplish, 41 years after the crime?

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Another echo now of America's troubled history with race. In Philadelphia, Mississippi, jury selection began today for a suspect in the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The crime helped to focus national attention on the organized violent resistance to civil rights in the South. But essayist Jimi Izrael wonders what's accomplished by focusing on the case now.

JIMI IZRAEL:

Barry Bradford, a history teacher from Illinois, turned a school project into a search for justice. Three of his students did a documentary for National History Day on the 1964 killing of three civil rights workers. And the information they exposed resulted in the murder indictment of Edgar Ray Killen, a reputed Klansman.

Now this is the kind of story that makes us all feel a little better about race relations in America. However, the indictment strikes me more like the kind of gesture that just serves itself. It weighs us all down and preserves the false notion that racism is an old Southern illness that is dying away. But that isn't to say that there is no public support for this indictment. In fact, Zogby Interactive did a poll where 83 percent of respondents agreed with the re-prosecution of the case. But asking who wants justice is too much like asking who wants ice cream, because everybody wants ice cream and everybody wants justice. What kind of nut is going to say no to justice deferred? Not me. But there must be a better way.

Now Killen should be held accountable for his crimes. But frequently, these kinds of trials only spark nostalgic civil rights demagoguery and sloganeering. The issue becomes a political football and cause for pointless debate. And after all the T-shirts are sold and Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton go home, whatever real issue there was gets lost.

Everyone has to learn to build from the past, not relive it. Aside from that, this approach just isn't practical. If we start corralling every white Southern grandpa who ever committed a hate crime, we may have to throw a dragnet over every old folks home south of the Mason-Dixon Line. And who's got that kind of time or inclination? Geraldo? Indiana Jones? Maybe the Ghostbusters or Scooby-Doo and those meddling kids. But not me. That's why I think we need to develop creative solutions in historic, high-profile cases like this. Killen does nothing for America wasting way his last days in the clink. Instead, why don't we put him in the hot seat, send him on a college speaking tour. As a piece of living history, Killen could give a peek into the mind of the bigotry that's willing to kill to preserve the status quo. And we may learn how to cut it to the quick. Racism didn't die with the '60s. And by seeing its naked, wrinkling face, maybe the next generation will learn to recognize racism today.

Barry Bradford's kids did a great job on their project, but Killen's indictment won't help black people, racial reconciliation, or forward the cause of justice and civil rights. It'll just keep us all mired in the past.

BRAND: The opinion of Jimi Izrael. He's an editorial-page writer at the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky.

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BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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