It was like old home day in Neshoba County Sunday...with a few twists. The usual suspects the people I've gotten to know in the struggle for justice and racial reconciliation in the state were there to honor Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner: former elected officials and social activists and journalists and movement veterans and everyday citizens who want justice for victims of civil rights violence.
But there were a couple of folks I didn't expect to see from my seat in the front row, as close to the action as I could possibly get: Gov. Haley Barbour and Rep. Chip Pickering, sitting there on the stage as some of the most progressive Mississippians I know called for justice in a long-overdue case and apologized to the families on behalf of the state of Mississippi.
My first thought when I saw Barbour climb to the stage was: "What in hell is he doing here?"
Rude, I admit, but so has been his repeated use of the Southern Strategy over the years using coded race rhetoric to lure whites to the GOP from helping Reagan take the South in 1980 to last fall when he attacked Ronnie Musgrove for "attacking our flag." Why on God's green earth would Barbour crash this particular party, I immediately wondered. Was he here just to remind us that the Southern Strategy is still kicking this state in the butt 40 years after those three young men died to help liberate us all from race division?
Then I realized that Barbour's presence really indicated a chink, however small, in the Southern Strategy's armor. Perhaps Barbour feels bad about his use of race codes to get himself and lots of other folk elected to office we can hope. Or, it could be he is realizing that the welcome mat for that shameful scheme is being pulled back in steadily as younger Mississippians start paying more attention to what the innuendo means. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Barbour's policy boys are realizing that a whole bunch of natives are tired of the racist crap and are ready to band together and move forward without it and its proponents.
Not only was that day and Neshoba County's multi-racial coalition for justice momentous. So was the fact that an elected official showed up to demonstrate any contrition at all for a race crime in this state. If you recall, after Dick Molpus did it as secretary of state in 1989, Kirk Fordice used the apology against him six years later in the 1995 gubernatorial race. Likewise, in 1989, white congressional members from Mississippi refused to sign onto a resolution honoring the memory of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Losers.
The race strategy's plaster seemed to crumble a bit Sunday when Barbour spoke in the Neshoba Coliseum. It was not an eloquent speech. I'd have felt sorry for him if I weren't so mad at him about everything from public education to Medicaid to damage caps to race-baiting. He uttered some uncomfortable truisms about murder being wrong, and wrongs being righted, and somehow slid into the importance of the U.S. war against Islamic fundamentalists. The sentiments were weak, but Barbour did say more than has ever been said by a person in his position, and with his history, and that was something. I'm not sure what exactly, but something.
The best part, though, was when Dick Molpus took the microphone to give the most powerful speech I've ever heard anyone give in the state of Mississippi (with due respect to William Winter, who already has several gold medals). Molpus came home to Neshoba County that day to say what needed to be said. Who would have thought he could outdo his own 1989 apology to the families of the men he called "American patriots" but, man, did he.
Standing in front of the seated Barbour, Molpus roared, unleashing 40 years of shame, contrition, passion for justice and love for his hometown. He complimented the Philadelphia Coalition of whites, blacks and Choctaws. Then he said he wanted to talk to the white people in the room, saying "we are all at least somewhat complicit in those deaths" until we face our "corporate responsibility" for the crimes. He pleaded for anyone with information on the murders to come forward to help bring closure, saying that the conspirators "domestic terrorists" he called them "certainly told wives, children and buddies of their involvement." He added: "Other murderers are aged and infirm and may want to be at peace with themselves and with God before their own death. They need to be encouraged to come forward. Now is the time to expose those dark secrets."
He didn't stop there. "But justice by itself is not enough," Molpus continued, his determined voice filling the Coliseum as chills flew up my arms and tears rolled down my face. "These three young men died while urging people to vote and participate in our democracy."
The work is not done: "True, African-Americans have the right to vote, but too few of our citizens black, white, Indian, Asian or Hispanic use that right. Public schools were segregated in 1964. With the growth of segregation academies and white flight many remain that way now."
The earth then shook as Molpus, with a quiver in his voice, challenged the governor sitting behind him and others like him: "Few politicians today use outright race baiting, but we see the symbols some use and the phrases they utter and everyone knows what the code is what really is being said." People were on their feet; "Amens" and applause filled the room.
Molpus ended by saying Mississippians must write, or rewrite, our own history: "40 years from now I want our children and grandchildren to look back on us and what we did and say that we had the courage, the wisdom and the strength to rise up, to take the responsibility to right historical wrongs...that we pledged to build a future together we moved on yes, we moved on as one people."
Copyright © 2004, Donna Ladd