Edgar Ray Killen, a Morality Tale for Mr. Gonzalez
I've recently read about what for most of us is very good news. The arrest of the prime suspect in the 1964 execution murders of three young civil rights workers, in Mississippi.
Edgar Ray Killen, a fundamentalist preacher and proud member of the local KKK 'Klavern', has been arrested and charged with murder in connection with the deaths.
Killen, who is perhaps a devotee of nominative determinism, was the lead suspect from very early in the strange investigation carried out after the murders. Killen, known as 'Preacher' by his Klan buddies was charged with conspiracy to commit murder back in 1965 but a lone juror held out against conviction saying she could not convict a preacher.
Based on old and newly collected evidence, the now 79 year old Preacher has been charged with murder in connection with the 1964 slayings. The families of the slain have expressed great relief that there will finally be a real day in court for the crimes committed so long ago.
After reading Tim Shorrock's blog, I did a bit of research regarding this case and a related crime committed in Birmingham, Alabama, the same year. The infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in which three little girls, changing into their choir robes, were killed. Approximately ten sticks of dynamite were used.
I remember the day of the church bombing. A cloudy, thunder stormy day. Everybody was tense. We lived in an unincorporated, mostly working class area called Fairfield Highlands, Alabama. The area was noted for the number of Klan members reputed to live there.
Klan membership was always publicly denied but some families were very obvious in spite of their vows. The bumper stickers, the numerous Confederate flags, and the acts of casual violence attributed to them, sort of gave them away.
There was real talk of open rebellion among the most extreme. The talk was rampant among the young male population, always the shock troops and cannon fodder for such revolts.
The civil rights movement and the Federal enforcement of Supreme Court Judgments, as well as the 1964 Civil Rights Act had created a states rights fervor among marginalized workers, and working and lower middle class people, whose rhetoric was as angry and outraged as those who supported it.
The mind set of the majority community could accept the murders carried out in Mississippi and in Birmingham, as well as numerous other atrocities against citizens and the Constitution itself. In fact, a majority just did not care. Many actually claimed the bombings were the work of radical Black groups that were trying to start a race war. Nine of the earliest police suspects were Nation of Islam members.
I was a product of the time and place and was as callous and war like in my view as anyone but… a day after the bombing, sitting alone watching the TV for coverage of the on-going riots, I chanced a look at the photographs on the cover of my fathers copy of the Birmingham News.
The photos of the three little girls were on the front page and just for an instant I really looked at them, and in that instant I was struck by the utter innocence and tiny flower like beauty of them. In that unguarded second, I received my first sharp sliver of conscience.
For a breadth of time small too short for a name, I saw myself and my own guilt and responsibility, staring back from the paper. It was only an instant quickly forgotten but a tiny wormy embryo of doubt was planted in my young redneck heart. An un-noted change had begun.
Now, so many years later, a life time away in some respects, murder charges have finally been laid against the accused ring leader of the two carloads of Klansmen that lay in wait for and brutally beat and murdered those three young men.
In the Birmingham Church bombing, the case was closed and opened five times over the years. In 1977, one of the bombers received a life sentence. In 2000 another was convicted and in May, 2002, Bobby Cherry, the dynamite supplier and leader, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Years of cover ups and political interference had been overcome. These men hid in plain view in a culture whose mind set they once represented. Today, there is a political will to bring these criminals to justice.
The moral to this cautionary tale is for those who have put the issue of torture on the world table in such a big way lately, from George, thru Gonzalez and Rummy, and down to the smiling lady MPs and their mates.
Right now, the country is torn. Most folks are at least queasy about torture just as most Alabamians were queasy about murder and bombing churches.
But just as then, the above mentioned future defendants represent the mind set of enough Americans, that they walk free.
That is the current reality of the American body politic. While the current regime will likely use every means at its disposal, under its new totalitarian laws, they can only postpone their inevitable decline.
International law and the crimes committed will not go away. The hearts and minds of people will change. The requirements of justice will remain.