Friday, April 9, 2010

Neshoba: reconciliation and a kind of justice

                          

       Micki Dickhoff’s “Neshoba” is the creation of a long spiritual journey.  Three years younger than Andy Goodman and me, she was so horrified by the murder of James Cheney, Andy and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi  that she almost went down there (her father was vehemently against it, and she didn’t go).  Her grandfather, she said at the showing, had been the one jew in another small  town in Mississippi. Spat upon by Christians/Klansmen, he was friends with and united with blacks.  In this film, she follows the preacher Edgar Ray Killen over 5 years as he was put on trial.  She interviews him repeatedly (the Killens just took her as a Mississippi girl).  Killen’s brother affirmed a kind of “Christianity” – “He made the different races,   You don’t see a bluebird mating with a…”  

          I once organized against the Klan at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs.  We were leafleting at a shopping center; an older woman, a Catholic, from rural Kentucky who had gone to a Protestant sermon , cane up and told me her story.   Her  preacher, like Killen, was a Klansman and spent the sermon denouncing “Papists,” singling her out “as an instrument of Satan.”  Blacks, Jews, Catholics, Pastor Niemoller was right in his poem: “first they came for the Jews and the union leaders, and I did nothing….and then they came for me, and there was no one left to protest.”  Divide and rule. Racism has also been the secret of white poverty in the American South (and throughout the country).  Micki’s sound track uses Bob Dylan’s “Just a pawn in their game.”  When one goes along with racism toward others, Americans or Israelis toward Arabs, the noose slowly closes around one’s own neck… 

         Killen was proud of his membership in the Klan, and had told many – in self-conception, a kind of “hero,” he said to Micki, a hardworking man until he was 80, cutting timber but horribly injured by a tree falling on him just before the trial - that he had struck against those “communists.”  Schwerner and Goodman were “New York jews.”

         Discussing the search of the river and the dam in which the three men were found, the film shows that the FBI retrieved 12 bodies.  9 other dead people, black, floated below the surface of the river.  No investigation or publicity (Hoover was too busy pillorying Martin Luther King).   At the end of the film, Micki lists and mourns by name 122 blacks, who were disappeared/murdered in Mississippi fighting for civil rights.  Officially, the number of the lynched is 3000 to 5000 in the twentieth century, with a lot of pictures (if one wants to see what human monsters are capable of, those pictures, bad as Auschwitz, say it all).  But the total number dumped into the Mississippi like Emmett Till, is far greater than 5,000 (perhaps 4 times as many bodies floating as we know only  because there were two whites with James Cheney; Micki found 122 so perhaps 40 times the number).  I have a book coming out this year with University of Chicago on the unexpected centrality of slavery and the fight for abolition in the American Revolution, Emancipation and Independence here.  The corpses float beneath the surface of the American history and we must give them voice.   Talk with blacks if you want to know “the trouble America has seen.”

       James Cheney was not shot and killed.  His body was broken and torn apart.  He was buried alive in the dam.  Fannie Lee Chaney, his mother, said sorrowfully that she wished he had been drowned in the river (she had no peace for 40 years, but it was good to see Killen finally tried by the State of Mississippi).  David Davis was a CORE organizer who gave a speech at the memorial.  He was told by the national office to keep it cool, not to stir up too much trouble.  But he looked at little Ben Chaney, James’s brother, crying (the pictures of Ben from the time are in the movie, and  if one were made of stone, it would break one's heart to see him...).  David spoke the most impassioned and spiritually true words about what this meant, how he was tired of coming to funerals for all those murdered by the racism of the South.  “I wish I was in the land of cotton” – the airhead Governor of Virginia with his Confederate history month – they might as well sing “the Horst Vessel Lied” (theme song of the Nazi party).  See Jack Balkin here.

     But Phil Ochs sang “Mississippi, find another country part of.”  I agree wholeheartedly with his sentiment – perhaps another universe, a planet Cheney where the unrepetent Killen and Cheney and others could just be in the hell of their own company (cf. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics on the psychology of tyrants and defective “friendship” as applause, keeping oneself entertained by others so as not to look at one’s crimes, shielding oneself in psychic civil war, never having to be alone…).  Of course, one can eventually take back, with Bishop Tutu, Martin King, and Gandhi, those who are capable of remorse…As Thich Nat Hanh suggests, one must heal people including those who had done horrors, but only by blocking the possibility that such things will be lied about, celebrated, repeated.

      Rita Bender, then Rita Schwerner, said from the first moment of her mourning that James Cheney had been noticed because two white men had been murdered with him.  It was the silence of lynching that Mickey Schwerner had gone to the South, been arrested, beaten, and then given his life to prevent.  He and she wanted a society in which every child could grow up and live without the threat of murder (by the state or its organization of  racists – the Klan/Democrats were the state).  In the Bush-Cheney darkness, I organized for habeas corpus, the cardinal principle of Anglo-American law.  If arrested, each deserves a day in court, and not to be tortured or thrown away.  The American South and the United States of America treated law “as pie in the sky” for many, many people.  One should be careful – I say this especially for Barack Obama, a constitutional lawyer, a decent person, someone who knows better,  who has just decided that as President, he can murder Americans (in this case, an Arab-American) without a trial. Guilty until proven...? When one tears up the Constitution, gives up decency in public policy, it is a long way back…

      Rita still says this same point  (if one wants the searing experience of many lifetimes, hers was it and she spoke for the truth; they had discussed that they would be with each other intensely because the fuse was burning down…).  Every black in the South and every person in SNCC knows the truth of what she said.  Lyndon Johnson fought for the Civil Rights bill, the most decent thing he ever did, because he was pushed so hard from below.  The Supreme Court issued Brown v. Board of Education partly out of conviction, and partly because it was the Cold War and the pictures of lynchings and segregation were the stuff of Pravda (once could read the truth about racism in America more in the Soviet papers and papers worldwide than in the mainstream American press).  But colonialism was ending.  The new countries would hardly admire America, let alone its nefarious hunt for resources and economic advantage (overthrowing the democratically elected regimes of Mossadegh in Iran in 1954 and Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 under Eisenhower).

      Northern elites liked civil rights as an instrument in advancing their purposes in the Cold War, not because many of them hated segregation, sympathized with blacks,  remembered Pastor Niemoller’s words about Hitler (“first they came for the Jews…) or understood what the rule of law means.  Perhaps some of them, even Lyndon Johnson when he said “We shall overcome,” got a glimmer.  See Sotomayor, Brown v. Board of Education, Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s Social Science and Leo Strauss here and Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights.  This was the corrupt secret of the elite.   When Martin King broke silence about the war in Vietnam, he told the truth there too – and LBJ’s affection for Civil Rights vanished…Perhaps the comparative dimensions of King and the elite are revealed in the statement Jimmy Carter made at Coretta Scott King’s memorial: “Martin Luther King was the greatest political leader that my state and perhaps my country have ever produced.”  King, too, died young.

        Ben spoke of how James had promised to teach him to drive when he came back.  He waited.  James never came back. 

        Ben had great anger against whites (must say I know something of what he means about the South).  But he has gotten to another place.  The film shows the Coalition, black and white, of citizens of Neshoba country who stood up for decency and so, finally, after 40 years, brought a murderer to trial.  Ben spoke of a kind of reconciliation and the film shows this.  There is one white woman who cries and prays over Cheney’s grave, who makes a deep friendship with a black woman whose relatives someone in her family had beaten.  They recognized each other's humanity, that once there was remorse, they could slowly move into a future without such horrors, that they were sisters…

       Micki Dickhof is traveling the country, showing the film.  It has a lot of historical footage.  It can’t be shown commercially or on DVD without permission and a lot of money (the same thing that prevented “Eyes on the Prize” from being easily available for 25 years).  I can’t show Neshoba at DU or Metro (I had offered to), can’t buy a DVD because of this.  If one wants to know why the Tea Baggers or the Governor of Misssisisippi who made this Confederacy month, having to release a separate statement against slavery only after an outcry, can scream their bigotries, perhaps the fact that the story of James Cheney and Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner and the unrepetant preacher/murderer Ray Killen has not been taught to every junior high school student in the country, that classes cannot discuss, voices cannot come forth to say, this is where we have been, this must never happen here again…

      Mississippi – Fannie Lee Chaney and Schwerner’s parents wanted them buried side by side.  But “the law” (unjust law is no law) required that they be buried in segregated grave yards.  See Martin Luther King, “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.”

       Micki described showing the film in Jackson, Mississippi, near Neshoba, an hour and a half from Philadelphia.  Word was out about the film.  Killen’s daughter came (Micki was startled and nervous).  So did James Chaney’s daughter, born three months after he was murdered, raised in Mississippi under her mother’s name, Lewis. At the end of the movie, as they were walking out, Killen’s daughter ran up, tears streaming down her face, to Chaney’s daughter, and apologized.  There was recognition between them.  It was such reconciliation that made this long journey worthwhile, Micki said (she had also gotten to know Carolyn Goodman and Fannie Lee Chaney in making the film).  John Perdew had asked her how she had borne talking with Killen, following him for five years, till his conviction on manslaughter (sentenced to sixty years, the unrepentant Killen, may spend the rest of his life in jail).  But even in 2008 they couldn’t get a conviction in Neshoba on murder (the jury initially deadlocked 6-6).

        Micki said it was these experiences of reconciliation that sustained her.  She came to heal herself and the world.  Ben Chaney said the same thing.

        Ben and others were very critical of the district attorney’s office. There were 21 or so directly involved in the murder, and they were not the ones who ordered it.  Killen speaks of himself as a sacrifice to this, but those are foul words.  The three sacrificial lambs were Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.  Everyone at the SNCC training in Ohio knew that Northerners coming down to canvass might shield Southern civil rights workers, and that the Klan was gathering.  As they would gun down Medgar Evers, someone in the project was going to be killed.  Andy resolved to go because he had been taught to believe in equality (bone deep) by his mother and father, who were beautiful and noble people (and could not hold back their son from doing the right thing that they all believed in).  He was a man, he knew the danger.  Saying goodbye to him, David, his brother, had a presentiment that he would not see him again. Andy was in Mississippi for only one day.  To put them somewhat at ease, he sent them a  card:

       “Dear Mom and Dad, I have arrived safely in Meridian, Mississippi. This is a wonderful town, and the weather is fine. I wish you were here. The people in this city are wonderful, and our reception was very good. All my love, Andy.”  See here.

He went to a burned out church, the car broke down, the sheriff picked them up, and…

        The Klan in Missisisppi was led by a secret police organization known as the Sovereignty Council.  It was directed by Senator James Eastland, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, controlling all the appointments whom President Johnson is pictured, talking up.  Old friends.  Good to know that Klan-“law” was the center so long of the American judiciary (and it is again in the reactionary 4 on the Supreme Court whose clear and distinct thought is to strike at Brown v. Board…). Edgar Ray Killen was a flunky who carried out Senator Eastland’s commands.  The entire police department was in the Klan.  

    Killen was a little higher up in the chain than the lowest, but no leader (it would be a little like trying Steve Stefanowicz, the shadowy CACI operative – a mercenary corporation doing in NewYorkTimesBushspeak “harsh interrogations”  at Abu Ghraib - and not just Lynndie England and Charles Graner.  Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush and Rice, all named  by the UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, as persons of interest, walk away. 

      Senator Eastland moved in the highest circles and was protected from investigation til he died….

      But the fact that blacks and whites came together to do justice, that Micki Dickhoff could make this long quest and is going around the country sharing the truths that she found, is striking.  It does not change the past, it cannot drain that poison, it will  not bring Andy and others back, but it is part of the process (I too am part of this process) which helped to elect Obama and which stands for America as a decent place.

      The discussion was striking.  

       Tanya from the University of Colorado at Denver had grown up in the Midwest.  Her parents, from Philadelphia, had not spoken of Missisisippi. When she went down there a few years ago, she was horrified at the racism.  In the North, she said, it is comparatively subtle; there you can cut it with a knife.  A neighbor, 8 year old white boy came to the house of her aunt and demanded to know the price of the house.  Tanya was going to dismiss him for his arrogance and persistence.  But the aunt rushed in to check her.  “I’m not thinking of selling right now,” she said.” “but when I do, your daddy will be the first person I tell.”  Tanya was not prepared for this. 

        In the course of the discussion, she brought up the latest issue of the Advocate, a campus paper, that had a virulently racist issue (later proclaimed an April Fool’s “Joke”).  “Black women get pregnant because they can’t afford contraception” is a sample.  I teach some at Metro (one of the three campuses downtown) and have an amazingly integrated class (it is like democracy).  After Monday’s session, Natalia (her parentage is Sioux, Italian, black and Chicano), who has herself been beaten by the police along with her boyfriend, and spoke to the class of perhaps joining the police - somebody who might civilize them - because there was no authority to protect her when she was a child) and I went to a demonstration near King Hall against the racism.  Turn the coin: Barack is President, a kind of miracle, but the poison, as John Perdew put it, is still here.

       John Perdew and his wife are from Georgia.  Tanya had made the point that her parents never told her the stories of Mississippi.  She was unprepared to confront Neshoba.  They all emphasized the importance of telling the stories, writing them down, speaking them in high schools, on campuses, to families, wherever people may hear them.  This is also a profound purpose of the Veterans of Hope, organized by Vincent Harding, which has recordings of James Lawson and Diane Nash and many others, telling their truths, see here; Donnie Betts has also organized a reading of a play about Perdew, “the education of a Harvard man” (it will also be broadcast on KGNU 88.5fm, 1390am soon)  and John - see here - is just publishing an account of his experiences this week.  We must not let the crimes remain buried in the dam of Neshoba (the owner of the property, a Klansman, was still alive when only Killen was tried).  We must not let Mississipi, a fascist graveyard, continue to hold the secrets of the 122 bodies.  We must bring to life again the people who stood up and whose bravery in the face of evil is what makes us decent.  It is a large part of why I will publish, after 14 years of work,  Emancipation and Independence, a book on the centrality of black soldiers on both sides  in the American Revolution, a story largely buried for 220 years on both sides of the Atlantic. 

       There are stories, too, on the other side.  After Andy was murdered, I could long see the faces of Sheriff Rainey and Deputy Cecil Price.  They joked around at the trials on Federal civil rights charges – slaughter these men and get a slap on the wrist.  A fat man, Cecil Price’s face, in a photograph, with a smile, looms over the reporting of that quasi-judicial proceeding (the law is a difficult thing, and to honor it, one must do what one can, often as in Neshoba in the trail of Killen alone, something far short of justice.  The rule of law is far more important than trying to right the wrongs of the past; it is healing the future - at its best Truth and Reconciliation as in emancipated South Africa -  not offing the murderers, which is the only decent way forward).  But the Klanlynchers just got a federal slap on the wrist.

       Price may have been the one who arrested Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, when they were changing the blownout tire of their car.  He did the evil.  Yet he was ultimately a lawman.  He saw changes in Mississippi.  He knew what he had done.  He volunteered to testify for the prosecution in the State’s case against Killen.  But the state’s attorney general delayed for two years.  And somehow, Price fell from a balcony.  Suicide was the coroner’s verdict.  When the Klan murders a white man in the 2000s in Mississippi to protect their dark crimes, it is a “suicide.”  If you  think American racism is far away, take a look at John Boehner, House minority leader, egging on the “tea baggers” to spit on John L. Lewis and you will see the same faces…Racists murdered even Cecil Price. Cecil Price demonstrated some of the importance and courage of reconciliation, some staring at and coming to terms with what he had done, some turning toward the light…

        One cannot call up justice for all of those taken.  One cannot even name them or tell all the stories (consider again the role of John Evans as Governor of Colorado, in the mountain and boulevard and the chapel and the Professorships named for him, the Senator Eastland/Edgar Ray Killen of the Sand Creek Massacre).  But the stories must be told to resist such things, as many as possible.  People finally spoke the truth at the Court so that we and our children may make something new (what Micki Dickhoff saw in Killen’s daughter who went to express shame and remorse and sorrow – she had not done the murder, after all – and apologize and speak with Chaney’s daughter).  As Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness underlines, freedom must be won, the  stories must be told – the truth must enter into the field and be recognized - for healing and reconciliation to occur.

         As a Harvard student somewhat older than I, John Perdew had resolved to make the trip to Albany, Georgia (a center of noble black resistance to segregation, led by the courageous and patient Charles Sherrod, see "Eyes on the Prize") and stayed with SNCC.  He had been through many adventures, being jailed, beaten, attacked by a mob, hated by the sheriff, but they did not kill him.  Georgia was perhaps not quite Mississippi.  And the infamy of Philadelphia, the nightly national publicity for 6 weeks, as the FBI searched the river and the dam, all contributed to their stopping just short of killing him.  A play has been written about John – "The education of a Harvard man."  In Americus, Georgia he organized cleaning women  and was later attacked by a mob.  But they didn’t kill him.  Andy was the sacrifice and John is, in one way, the nearest living person to Andy who came through the storm and has a book, just out this week, about it.  I had met John once before, but in the context of this evening, suddenly I understood.  We both carry something of Andy.

         Andy and I were in a class at Walden School of some 15 boys and girls.  We played football together when we were 7 or 8 in Central Park.  I was tackled, smashed my lower lip on the granite, and ate through a straw for several days.  After 4th grade, my family moved to Westport, Connecticut, and I lost touch with people at Walden.  In 1962 as a freshman at Harvard, I went on a freedom ride to Chestertown, Maryland.  Last month, I heard Judy Richardson, maker of “Eyes on the Prize,” speak with Vincent Harding at Metro about how she gave up a scholarship at Swarthmore (over the fierce objections of her family, particularly her sister) to go work in Cambridge, Maryland for SNCC in 1961.  She had great courage and her life was transformed by the experience.

      On the bus down to Chestertown, the organizers told us that the week before, the sheriff had led a mob attacking the picketers outside Woolworth’s, and a woman had been thrown the glass window (she was still in the hospital).  The bus was barreling down the highway and none of us really could bring ourselves to say "stop!" let alone get off.  Because that had happened the previous week, the storm passed us by.  We were off the bus, in front of Woolworth’s, spoke with a few people who were grateful,  and back on the bus.  There was little time to talk deeply with people of Chestertown, little time to become involved.

        1962 was still an early stage in the development of SNCC.  I was not called to remain (not that it didn’t affect me even in writing these words many years later; I would be thrown out of Harvard in part for leading demonstrations against racism toward black painter’s “helpers,” that is, painters, sometimes of 20 years experience like Sonny Gordon from Jamaica, who could be paid 3,000 less a year than white Harvard painters, and the whites $2,000 less than the union rate in Boston.  The smartest guy at Harvard about how racism worked – he used to speak at our rallies detailing it - John Carroll, a white painter, had perhaps the funniest and in the end, gentlest sense of humor I have ever run across and knew how to stand up.  If one wants to understand Harvard’s role about racism intellectually at that time, the most prominent public speakers were Richard Herrnstein, professor of psychology, who published "IQ in the Meritocracy" in the Atlantic saying blacks were genetically inferior in intelligence to whites, and Edward Banfield, professor of Government, a Nixon advisor and appointee to posts to carry out his views, who said in The Unheavenly City,  “they have intractable lower-class culture” (just like “the Irish in the 1880s,” so “I am not a racist”) and were not capable of looking beyond the present and seeking violent gratification” (and this from an impassioned advocate of an elite that “eyes to the future,” burned children with napalm in Vietnam or hobknobbed with Senator Eastland and other organizers of a secret police - the Sovereignty Commission - and lynching!). Banfield, who was also  a political collaborator with Leo Strauss - Leo had invited him to Chicago Public Affairs conferences and worked with him on appointments at Harvard - liked segregation….

          When I was looking into myself to find the courage to go to Mississippi for Freedom Summer in 1964, I was frightened by my experience.  That was in Maryland and one might not come back…I didn’t go.  Andy went.  The poem - I thought briefly of  renaming it Stories for John Perdew - which I read at the gathering was about this experience (see the next post).

         I should emphasize an important point which the film does not make.  Freedom Summer was part of SNCC’s organizing of people to vote and the emergence of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.  Fannie Lou Hamer from Ruleville, a woman of great depth and courage, singing out the great spirituals while leading the fight for recognition against the official segregationist/KuKluxKlan missisippi delegation at the Democratic Convention, came into and then led the movement which grew out of this organizing.  Here was a way Stokely and SNCC, who registered individuals to vote, improved on the  organizing of Martin Luther King and SCLC (see here). Or one could say, it was all an interplay, and many of us, moved then or now, continue to fight in the cause of democracy and decency.

      Lyndon Johnson got on national television to hide the Freedom Democratic Party’s testimony.  Fannie Lou Hamer’s powerful words (as powerful as Johnson’s were empty) would not be heard by a national audience.  No apology from the racists.  The Democrats had power as a national party for a long time because of FDR’s reforms and the fight against the Nazis; they also had it through an alliance with fascists and were accomplices (as today Republicans are).  The Freedom-Democratic Party was not seated by the racist Democrats. "Eyes on the Prize" shows a white delegate, an usher, keeping a protesting black woman from taking one of the 40 empty seats.   As a “compromise,”  Walter Mondale said, 4 were to be seated.  There is a certain spinelessness to “politicians.”  But the Mississippi Klan Delegation left the Convention. 

        They would become the new Republican party (the racists against Obama today, the party of Ronald Reagan and the destruction of America as a productive power as opposed to a declining war/financial casino power, and harms to millions here and abroad – racism is their last desperate resort).  Fannie Lou Hamer is the honor of a Democratic Party which could not recognize her.  She is central in the story of Obama.  But none of this would have happened without the sacrifice of Andy, James Cheney and Mickey Schwerner.


*The Klan used to run large parts of the country, even the Rocky Mountain states in the 20s.  To join the Democratic Pendergast machine in Kansas City, Harry Truman also had to join the Klan.  That he acted against racism toward blacks as President shows, once again, that people can heal to some extent.  Toward the Japanese of course, his bigotry and murderousness – “I didn’t lose a night’s sleep” over Hiroshima; boastful, daylight words – displayed the lasting influence of the Klan

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