Fifty years ago this weekend, in the Freedom Summer of 1964, the civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner went missing in Mississippi, their bodies recovered 44 days later. Their violent murders at the hands of Ku Klux Klansmen had a galvanizing effect on the civil rights movement but saw no legal redress until the state of Mississippi successfully prosecuted Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen in 2005.
That trial was part of a wave of “retrospective justice” efforts that have led to the reopening of more than one hundred murder cases since the mid-1990s. In Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders, which we’ll publish this fall, historian Renee Romano examines the complex dynamics of a long overdue public reckoning that may serve to offer “narratives of redemption” that the country has not yet rightly earned. We discussed these issues with Romano in the exchange posted below.
Q. What prompted your interest in the reopened civil rights trials? Which aspects of your research most surprised you?
I first became interested in civil rights trials when I was working on a project about the historical memory of the civil rights movement. I am very interested in the question of how different groups represent the past and to what end. I was exploring different sites where the movement is represented—films, fiction, museums, monuments—and I realized that the courtroom was another key place where the movement was being discussed and portrayed. I began examining these trials and was surprised by how many cases had been reopened, how long and hard family members had worked for legal justice, and how much attention journalists and politicians were paying to civil rights murders. It became clear to me that there was something going on with these cases collectively that needed to be explained.
What surprised me most, perhaps, were the ways in which contemporary prosecutions have become the subject of a political struggle between those who support them as a way to close the door on the past and those who hope to harness to them as a political project of shedding new light on the past in order to promote social and racial justice in the present.
Q. What forces conspired to make the 1990s the moment when prosecutions for crimes committed 30 years earlier were finally reopened?
A range of factors came together in the 1990s and 2000s to enable these decades-old cases to be reopened. These murders were committed during an era of racial terror and intimidation, and they were often hushed up; blacks were afraid of talking about them, whites wanted to move on. But relatives and friends of victims always hoped they might be able to secure legal justice for their loved ones some day. Getting cases reopened took a lot of hard work on their part to keep pressure on southern authorities to revisit them.
That project became more possible in the 1990s for a host of reasons. For one thing, the civil rights movement succeeded in changing many people’s attitudes about racial discrimination. Many Americans came to embrace the idea that the law should treat people equally regardless of race. In that environment, unpunished racially motivated killings became more disturbing and it became easier for relatives to make the case that it was worth the time and effort to put now-elderly men in jail.
Journalists played a huge role in getting these civil rights-era murder cases reopened. By the 1990s, there were new sources becoming available to journalists, like the previously secret records of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. There was also growing cultural fascination with cold cases in general, and new formats like the television newsmagazine encouraged lengthy stories of dramatic crimes. Journalists helped bring attention to civil rights murders, they humanized the victims, and very importantly, they often did the investigative legwork that allowed authorities to reopen cases.
Finally, by the 1990s and 2000s a new generation of white southern political figures was coming to realize that the South as a region continued to be stigmatized as racist and backwards in part because so many of these murder cases remained unresolved. Many of the southern prosecutors or district attorneys who worked on these cases came to believe that there was more to be gained by revisiting civil rights violence than by continuing to ignore it.
Q. How were the goals of those distinct groups of people complementary, and when did they come into conflict?
All of the different groups who advocated for or who came to support reopening investigations could agree that seeking legal justice was important for families and for acknowledging the full value and worth of the victims who had never had a fair day in court. But the legal officials and politicians who came to embrace trials often hoped to use prosecutions to rehabilitate the reputation of communities that were still stigmatized by their refusal to punish racial violence in the 1950s and 1960s. They wanted to focus blame for the crimes on a few Klansmen and claim that by putting those elderly men in jail, the South had fully redeemed itself for its history and had effectively closed the door on the past. Activists and most relatives who pushed for legal justice hoped instead that trials would uncover the ways in which the state and many community institutions at the time had fostered the violence of the Klan and were complicit with the racial terrorism of the era. They wanted trials not to close the door on the past but to generate a broader understanding of the role of the state and the broader community in upholding white supremacy and of the ways in which racial discrimination and racial violence had legacies for today. They were not satisfied with blaming all of the wrongs of the past on a few elderly Klansmen or in declaring convictions proof that racism had been overcome.
Q. What do you see as some of the achievements of these trials? What have been their limitations?
The trials have served some very important functions. They have helped bring attention and awareness to a host of crimes and a history of violence that had often been hidden. They have brought comfort and relief to many relatives of victims who finally feel that their loved ones have been shown some of the respect that they deserve. In communities still scarred by the unaddressed violence of the civil rights eras, holding a trial can promote healing and some measure of reconciliation. And in a few instances, working towards a trial has served as a form of community organizing that has brought people together across racial lines to discuss and address the challenges they face in their community.
But trials also have some very serious limitations. The nature of a criminal trial has made it very hard for prosecutions to offer a complex understanding of America’s racial history or to make clear the ways in which racial violence was enabled and fostered by local officials, state authorities, community elites, and often the federal government. Prosecutions also promote a sense of closure and finality; civil rights trials suggest that convicting a few elderly Klansmen closes the door on the past and means that the nation has done all that it needs to address and redress its history of racial violence. Trials have not proved a good vehicle for highlighting connections between racism in the past and racial inequalities in the present, and they lend themselves to a triumphalist reading of US history that suggests that the US has now moved beyond race.
Q. Scholars like David Blight have taught us that our understanding of the conflicts in our past can be distorted by efforts to put them to rest. To the extent that they’re perceived as “closure,” there’s a way in which these trials will be shaping public memory of the civil rights movement and the violence that characterized it. What concerns might you have, then, about how these trials may shape how future generations reflect on the civil rights struggle?
I am very concerned about the stories that Americans tell themselves—and that the media tells us—about our racial history. Stories have great power; the narratives people accept about their past help determine their political responses in the present and future. To the extent that trials are successfully framed as closure, I fear that convictions might actually make it harder to generate an honest accounting of racial violence and to foster a full reckoning with the nation’s history of racism.
I don’t think trials are alone in this. So many of the dominant narratives of the civil rights struggle today suggest that the civil rights movement effectively “solved” racism and that any disparities today must be due to deficient cultural practices or impersonal market forces. But these contemporary prosecutions have been the subject of widespread media coverage and have earned official support and recognition by state and federal governments, which gives the narratives they promote a particular kind of power and legitimacy. I am hopeful, though, that there are committed activists working to use prosecutions to tell a very different story of America’s racial past, one that focuses on the nation’s history of racial terrorism, the role of the state, and the legacies of violence for today.
Q. The violence that these trials are meant to address is well understood to have been a tool of white supremacy, and it’s striking that your analysis here comes just as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic piece on the case for reparations has forced a rare public conversation on the historical—and not so historical—structural perpetuation of social and political dominance for whites in America. Do you see the “racial reckoning” of the trials you’ve studied as having a place in that conversation?
Oh, absolutely. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s really powerful piece provides a primer of African American history and of how blacks have been systematically disadvantaged by white supremacy for the past two hundred and fifty years. My book explores one aspect of the practice of white supremacy and its consequences in depth. And both my book and Coates’s article highlight the power and importance of understanding history. Coates writes that, “Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken.” I see both his work and my work as an insistence on the need to speak, to tell the story of racism in the United States in its full ugly truth. It’s vital that we as a nation understand the ways in which black people were dispossessed, punished for being successful, segregated, and denied legal and economic privileges that the government made available to whites.
It’s also critical that we fully understand the role that violence has played in upholding that racial order and maintaining white supremacy. We often talk about terrorism as if it is something new that started with 9/11. But black Americans have long been subjected to terrorism and politically motivated violence. Understanding that is a critical part of any conversation about the responsibility of the country to address and redress that history, whether through reparations or through other kinds of political initiatives.