Ed Whitfield in Mississippi: Two Southern Atrocities Contrasted
One of the observers of the trial last month of Edgar Ray Killen for the 1964 killings in Neshoba County, Miss. of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner was Greensboro activist Ed Whitfield, whose column can be read in The Carolina Peacemaker.
‘“It was a piece of history in the making, given this is one of the few prosecutions in Mississippi from that period of violence,’” Whitfield told YES Weekly on June 30. ‘“I spent my fifteenth birthday wondering if these people were going to be found alive as someone who spent much of my time concerned with the civil rights movement.’”
Whitfield said the cultural impact of the trial, which ended with Killen being convicted of manslaughter for the killings, seems to be mixed.
Outside the courthouse on June 20, Whitfield listened to elderly white men grouse about the trial and the international media attention it brought.
‘“They said they hadn’t seen a shred of evidence that put Killen anywhere near the killing, so you could tell they really represented the old way of thinking,’” he said. ‘“But I saw a lot of young people, women and even elderly white men saying, ‘We think it’s time something is being done.’”
The trial occasioned a reunion of sorts for civil rights veterans such as Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee organizers Diane Nash and Cleveland Sellers, Whitfield said. The reunion spurred a discussion among the activists of the relative merits of the criminal justice system and the restorative justice model used by the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission as methods of redressing historical wrongs.
In Mississippi, the criminal justice model seems appropriate even though it has limitations, Whitfield said.
‘“The cry in Mississippi is that ‘we want justice,”” Whitfield said. ‘“This is a community that has never been acknowledged as being valuable, and the feeling is that people who killed people should have to stand trial for it. To talk about reconciliation without accountability would sound strange to them.’”
That said, putting one senile, elderly man ‘— Killen ‘— in jail for the rest of his life, does not come close to addressing the whole legacy of civil rights-era atrocities, Whitfield contended. He noted the different social contexts for addressing the civil rights killings orchestrated by Killen and the 1979 killings of communist labor activists in Greensboro, in which Klan members and Nazis captured on video at the scene of the carnage were subsequently acquitted.
‘“I made a speech that in Greensboro we need the truth and reconciliation process,’” Whitfield said. ‘“I said that they have indeed ‘gotten away with it,’ but the question of what role did the larger community play in it needs to be addressed.’”
– Jordan Green