Over the past 25 years, prosecutors have re-investigated approximately 100 murders that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s struggle to challenge “the racial order” of the South. Thirteen cases eventually produced convictions of 23 men. Professor Renee Romano of Oberlin College has written a perceptive book that analyzes the prosecutions and the phenomenon they created. More importantly, she raises hard questions about the premise that America is now a “color blind” society that has fully reckoned with its history of racial violence.
Although race-motivated murders of the mid-century took place throughout America, the book focuses most of its attention on eight cases from Alabama and Mississippi that later produced convictions. These include the murders of Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, Rainey Pool, the four Birmingham girls (Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley), Ben Chester White, the three Freedom Summer activists (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner), Charles Moore and Jimmie Lee Jackson.
The author begins the book by positing that “some pasts refuse to lie down quietly.” Although the murders were committed by a few, they were enabled and condoned by many. The question was not really who killed the victims, but what killed them.
The answer was “Jim Crow justice.” As explained by the author, Jim Crow was unwilling to protect victims, conducted shoddy investigations, made few arrests, engaged in lackluster prosecutions, and manipulated all-white juries to exonerate perpetrators.
The book explains the myriad ways in which the police, prosecutors, the bar, and judges shared responsibility for racial violence, which was tolerated as a tool of intimidation and terror.
As recounted by the author, in the wake of the Brown decision in 1954, the president of the Mississippi Bar Association stated in a speech that Southerners would likely have to turn to “the gun and torch” to protect segregation. During jury selection in the original prosecutions, police often made it known to defense lawyers which of the potential jurors were considered “safe.” Before the all-white juries, defense lawyers were permitted to: (a) argue that murders were justified because of the victims’ political views; (b) demonize the victims; (c) appeal to racial loyalty; (d) turn the murders into a referendum on the federal government’s policies toward the South; and (e) infer that whites who wanted to maintain segregation had to be willing to tolerate some violence committed on their behalf.
Beginning in the early 1990s, however, the South revisited and began to address the past injustices. One of the strengths of the book is the masterful way in which the author explains how the relatives of the victims, prosecutors, southern political elites, journalists, and racial justice advocates attempted to undertake the “national reckoning of racial violence.”
The author’s description of the re-opening of the Evers murder case is compelling. In 1963, Evers was the field secretary in Mississippi for the NAACP. On July 12, 1963, he was shot and killed at his Jackson home by a Klansman, Byron De La Beckwith, whose two 1964 trials ended in mistrial. During the original trials, local police secretly aided the defense with improbable alibi evidence. Furthermore, the Mississippi governor, Ross Barnett, an ardent segregationist, walked into the courtroom and shook Beckwith’s hand in front of the jury.
In late 1989, however, a Mississippi journalist, Jerry Mitchell, found evidence in state files suggesting that Mississippi officials had secretly aided Beckwith’s defense in the 1964 trials. As explained by the author, Mitchell brought this evidence to Evers’ widow, who in turn asked to meet with a local prosecutor, Bobby DeLaughter. In 1993, the Jackson City Council passed a resolution requesting that the prosecutor reinvestigate the case. DeLaughter subsequently did so and, in 1994, obtained a conviction over Beckwith.
Following the Beckwith conviction, other civil rights murder cases were re-opened. The author explains well how the victims’ families, investigative journalists, and civil rights activists convinced local prosecutors to revisit the old cases. The narrative is enriched by a wealth of interviews, trial records, and many press articles that chronicled the story.
By the 1990s, defendants who were indicted in the race murder prosecutions found a very different legal landscape than existed in the 1960s. Gone were the all-white juries, police chicanery, reluctant prosecutors, and tepid local press of the Jim Crow era. Defendants now found courtrooms where violence was no longer tolerated as a tool of racial intimidation.
The best part of the book is the chapter that focuses on the strategies followed and jury research conducted by the prosecutors in the contemporary trials. Because potential jurors rarely admit to race prejudice, prosecutors and their consultants developed a questionnaire that asked potential jurors whether race discrimination problems in America had been mostly solved. Jurors who answered that race was no longer a problem indicated they were “in denial,” suggesting to prosecutors that they were probably unable to judge fairly evidence about race bias.
At trial, prosecutors tended to follow a “we’re not like them” strategy. In demonstrating the defendants’ “motive,” prosecutors made every effort to make the jurors aware of the defendants’ racist attitudes. They also reminded jurors that the murders had badly stigmatized the South. Convictions would redeem the South’s image.
The victims were also portrayed very differently than they had been in the original trials. In 1964, the prosecutor in the Evers case sought to exclude evidence of the victim’s civil rights work. In the 1994 trial, prosecutor DeLaughter celebrated this fact. In 1964, the activists Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were depicted as “outside agitators” with Communist leanings. In the 2005 murder trial of Edgar Ray Killeen, prosecutor Jim Hood argued that the three victims had been “doing God’s work” in Mississippi and were “freedom fighters,” just like American troops in Iraq.
The author concludes that, although the contemporary trials present a narrative of redemption, they tell only a “mythic tale of racial progress.” The convictions did not close the book on an era, but instead wrote the opening chapter of a national conversation about America’s history of racial violence, the harm it has caused, and the reasons why it matters to this day.