Truth, Reconciliation, and the Ku Klux Klan

By Cunningham, David | Southern Cultures, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Truth, Reconciliation, and the Ku Klux Klan


Cunningham, David, Southern Cultures


"[Trials are] about individual culpability, not about the system as a whole. Trials set up an 'us versus them' dynamic. A trial is not about our complicity. It makes it look like they're guilty, not us."

--Paul van Zyl, South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission senior staff member

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

On June 21, 2005, exactly forty-one years after the murder of Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman in Neshoba County, Mississippi, former Ku Klux Klan member Edgar Ray Killen was convicted on manslaughter charges for those crimes. The national press widely framed the outcome of his high-profile trial as belated justice served, as well as a vehicle for broader closure and redemption for the community. But, for a crime allegedly perpetrated by at least twenty-one people--including the county Sheriff, who had openly, and successfully, campaigned on his ability to sternly "cope" with the state's influx of "racial agitators"--not everyone found the verdict entirely satisfying. David Dennis, who was a central figure in the 1964 Freedom Summer project that had brought Schwerner and Goodman to Mississippi, has consistently argued that the murders were, in truth, a statewide conspiracy to deny basic rights to African Americans. Ben Chaney, James's brother, similarly spoke of the need to recognize that "rich and powerful" elements associated with the plot continue to escape the reach of the law. Voices in the activist legal community have echoed this call, referring to these far-reaching networks of culpability as the "matrix of involvement." (1)

While additional trials for others directly implicated in the murder plot could help untangle that matrix by forcing the accused to be accountable for their actions, the redemptive potential of the legal process appears to be more limited. A criminal trial, by its very nature, focuses on the narrow question of whether a standard of proof has been met related to a person's involvement in a particular act. By holding up such individual unrepentant Klan members such as Killen as the only "real" villains, we achieve a facile, and ultimately false, closure. Historian Renee C. Romano has argued that these men, when regarded as "'embarrassing relics of a shameful past'.., become almost like displays in a museum case, to be dusted off for their national display in these trials. By emphasizing how far we've come since [that era] and how very different these men are from 'us,' the trials ... suggest that the nation has fully reckoned with the racial crimes of the past." (2)

This artificial partitioning between then and now becomes more insidious when perpetrators are viewed as representative of a category almost entirely separable from the population at large. As prosecutors consistently painted Killen--and by extension the Klan--as an evil redneck disconnected from the prevailing mainstream in Neshoba County or the white South generally, his trial shed little light on the matrix of involvement, obscuring the Klan's role in the community, as well as the institutional conditions that fostered its appeal during that time. Legal scholar Martha Minow defines this problem in more general terms: "Justice may call for truth but also demands accountability. And the institutions for securing accountability--notably, trial courts--may impede or ignore truth." (3) But what are the alternatives? How can a more serious consideration of racist elements like the KKK serve as a vehicle for a more complete conception of justice, focused on engaging with broader truths, facilitating community-level reconciliation, and ensuring that future abuses will not be tolerated?

Any attempt to expand the judicial system's narrow conception of culpability must demand that institutions as well as individuals be accountable. The Klan and other vehicles for organized racial terror did not operate in isolation; they were instead woven into the fabric of Neshoba County and hundreds of other communities. …

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