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.