Every year about this time people reflect on their life. Resolutions about booze, fags and betterment. You’ve got to go back to work too, ‘new year – same old shit’ echoes through the canteens of our nation’s workplaces.
This year will be different, this year I’ll do it, I’ll get there is the mantra we’re told to follow.
7 years ago, things were rather different for a group of folks in Neshoba County Mississippi. They were asked to indict a man in his 80s. A man who had worked with his hands all his life. A man who had been a preacher in the Southern Baptist Church.
They were asked to allow him to be tried for the murder of a Jewish social worker, a Jewish anthropologist and a black NAACP member in 1964.
7 years ago today a predominantly white, Baptist, Republican voting, harness horse race attending, county fair going, jury decided that one of their own ought to be tried for the murder of 3 outsiders.
I have I Miss-Miss-Miss-ed something?
I did. When I graduated from Oxford in 2006 I moved to Mississippi. I lived there, I worked there. I did a ‘civil rights’ type job. Little did I know about what had happened in the 1960s to other outsiders who had travelled to Mississippi to try and effect change.
In fact when I lived in Mississippi, nobody had told me about what happened the year before. It had been huge, not only for Neshoba County, not only for Mississippi but for America too.
So how did I miss it? The New York Times had covered it. The Washington Post had covered it. There had been an article in TIME magazine.
But the people in Mississippi, they didn’t want to talk about it.
Elephant in the room
A few years later, I returned to see friends and former colleagues, to visit parts of the Deep South I’d missed in the years before. I stayed with the Alston family. I hadn’t met them the first time round. They were friends of American friends. Alex Alston had been a chairman of the Mississippi Bar Association. He and his wife offered me true Southern Hospitality.
As a gift, I was given Alex’s book: Devil’s Sanctuary: An Eyewitness History of Mississippi Hate Crimes.
Alex’s book contained the elephant.
Trampled by the truth
Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were brutally murdered in the early hours of 21 June 1964. They were murdered because they believed that black people ought to have the vote.
Having set up black community projects in Meridian, Mississippi (somewhere 40 years later I faced arrest by the Chief of Police for trying to access a document of public record), they drew attention of the local Ku Klux Klan.
One day, the three left Meridian to investigate the burning of a Church which had been a hub for civil rights activities. The Klan knew the car they were in. The local Klansmen circulated the details. In Neshoba county, a local deputy sheriff spotted the car. He stopped them. He arrested the lot on a minor speeding charge and took them to the County jail.
In the jail they were held incommunicado. While they were there the deputy sheriff began the organisation of the civil rights workers’ murder. The jail staff denied the three were there at all.
They were fined $20 and released. They went on their way only to be pulled over by the police again. They were held on the side of the road until their murderers arrived. Taken to an isolated spot they were beaten and shot.
Obviously the local police did not investigate.
The President deployed the FBI. The Governor of Mississippi agreed with the Neshoba sheriff that these fellows were probably hiding, perhaps in Cuba.
44 days later the FBI found their bodies.
Protect your own
The Mississippi authorities refused to prosecute any of those that were clearly involved. So, the Federal Government indicted 8 individuals under the US Force Act 1870 with conspiring to deprive the three of their civil rights (by murder). They indicted the Sheriff a man named Rainey, the Deputy Sheriff Price and 16 other men. Guilty verdicts were returned on 20th October 1967.
None of the men did more than six years in prison.
In 1989, on the 25th anniversary of the murders, the American Congress passed a resolution honouring the three men civil rights workers; the Mississippi delegation would not vote in favour of it.
But there were others outstanding. Local Baptist minister, Edgar Ray Killen was heavily implicated but for some reason the jury could not convict. In 2000 it was revealed that one juror could not convict because Killen was a preacher.
A community never forgets
The community didn’t forget. And on 6 January 2005 a grand jury indicted Edgar Ray Killen for three counts of murder. He was prosecuted by the Attorney General of Mississippi, and found guilty of three charges of manslaughter. He received three consecutive sentences of 20 years which were upheld on appeal.
I think it was a communal sense of shame that meant people in Mississippi didn’t talk to me as an outsider about the Killen indictment. I know that Alex Alston’s book is a confession on behalf of his fellow Mississippians.
I have written and tweeted about Stephen Lawrence this week. I have talked about it with my colleagues and my friends. I am ashamed that we allowed his murderers to avoid justice for so long.
But, I won’t be quiet about it. I am going to talk about police culture until it is changed. I am going to talk about Stephen Lawrence until everybody in this country knows his story.
I hope we won’t stop until all of Lawrence’s killers are brought to justice. We should demand the truth for Eddie Gilfoyle. We must shed a light on the Mark Duggan death.
Every New Year, when I feel down about another year, I resolve to be inspired by Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner and that Grand Jury who ordered the trial of one of their own.