In the end, the Edgar Ray Killen verdict was nothing if not a case of justice delayed, justice denied. Four decades passed before he was finally convicted of his lead role in the hate-filled murders of three heroic civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, four decades in which he was able to live his life as he pleased after cutting short the lives of Andrew Goodman, Michael Shwerner and James Chaney.
As a journalism lab project at the University of Memphis in 1969, I decided to go to Philadelphia to write an article about the townspeople. I wasn’t even inside its city limits before I knew all I needed to know about them. The sign at the city limits proclaimed: Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You in Philadelphia. It was erected by the God-fearing members of the local Ku Klux Klan. If it was capable of making my white skin crawl, I could not even imagine the palpable fear that African-Americans there must endure every day.
During my day there, the people of Philadelphia dragged out all the old excuses: the civil rights movement was the work of Communists, blacks in Mississippi didn’t really want to vote because they knew they weren’t up to the responsibility and the white race had to protect itself from mongrelization of the races.
Of course, these attitudes weren’t confined to Philadelphia. After all, as a high school student in Collierville in 1965, I had seen an elderly African-American man slapped across the face and knocked off the sidewalk on the town square, because he had the audacity not to step out of a white man’s way.
But even in a South of such ugly truths, Philadelphia always held a special place. Its racism had an even more pitiless and ruthless edge to it.
Looking back, it’s often hard to comprehend today that the brutality of the culture then was as Southern as the sweet smell of magnolias in the summer. Fading away with these memories is the fact that so many people felt that they were being given permission to hate, because their preachers told them they could. After all, the Bible sanctioned segregation and God wanted the races kept apart. As I recall one sermon, it had mostly to do with what we all were supposed to know — God is a white man, and therefore, he quite naturally has a special love for white people.
So, following the verdict, while some of the talking heads on television news shows found it strange that Killen could be a preacher, albeit a part-time one, in truth, it was not strange at all. In those days, it was a rarity to find a preacher in the Deep South who was willing to stand up and speak the true meaning of Christ’s words. (In this regard, we were fortunate in Memphis to have several preachers and rabbis who did stand up. And forcefully.)
In the wake of the long-awaited guilty verdict for Killen, there was a kind of self-congratulatory commentary about how evil he was and how this type of behavior and treatment of minorities are not allowed excused in America today, pointing out correctly that the Christian gospel is one of justice and love. Preachers, they said, don’t use the Bible any more to ratify discrimination, encourage the dehumanization of minorities and give permission to their congregations to marginalize their neighbors.
I couldn’t help but wonder if my gay friends would agree. Somehow, the lessons of those days aren’t as powerful and clear when it comes to guaranteeing full rights to homosexuals today.
Dr. King often said that the Constitution didn’t say that all people, except black people, are endowed with inalienable rights. It’s almost possible today to hear his voice saying the same about gays. He would have no patience either with African-American ministers who once saw equal rights so clearly as God-given, but today, proclaim that homosexuality is a “white man’s disease” and condemn gays as instruments of Satan.
Fortunately, there are still men and women of the cloth who speak out for dignity for all people. As Rev. Frank McRae – a civil rights leader in the Sixties – said recently: “If God has the wisdom to make someone gay, who am I to argue with that?”
God help us if it takes 40 more years to realize that bigotry is always wrong, even when a minister tries to tell you otherwise.
(Dedicated to Brandon Tidwell for representing Memphis so positively on national media this week while explaining that there is no contradiction between being a devout Christian and gay.)