Video: Lynching apology

By Associate Producer, Hardball

On the very same day the United States Senate was set to apologize for not passing any anti-lynching legislation during the 19th or 20th centuries, jury selection began in the Philadelphia, Miss. courthouse for one Edgar Ray Killen.  Killen was tried back in 1967 for taking part in the murders/disappearance of three civil rights workers -- James Chaney, 21, Michael Schwerner, 24, and Andrew Goodman, 20 -- who were shot and killed alongside a southern country road in 1964. 

Eighteen men, including Killen, were indicted and tried on conspiracy to violate the civil rights of those three young men, who were taking part of "Freedom Summer" when young people came to the South to register black voters.  Their deaths and the turmoil afterwards concerning the search for their bodies and their killers was the plot of one of the best movies of the 1980s, "Mississippi Burning," starring Willem Dafoe, Gene Hackman, and Frances McDormand.  The State of Mississippi for some reason never charged anyone with murder, and U.S. Federal statutes regarding murder didn't exist at that time, thus only the conspiracy charges against the eighteen.  In the end, only seven were convicted and served sentences of no more than six years. 

Though he didn't pull the trigger, Edgar Ray Killen is alleged to have fueled the fire to get the three civil rights workers killed.  According to trial testimony from 1967, a Ku Klux Klan member, James Jordan, testified that Killen alerted KKK members that the Neshoba County sheriff had these three guys in custody, and to "hurry and get there...and tear their butts up."  Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were released from the county jail and once they got back into their car, they were chased down and forced off the road only to meet their ultimate fate -- a bullet at close range.  Their bodies were located a month and a half later, fifteen feet below the earth's soil. 

The jury in Killen's initial trial was deadlocked at 11-1 for conviction.  The lone holdout, a woman, couldn't be swayed.  Killen walked away a free man.  Now, 38 years after the hung jury, Killen is being charged with murder, and another jury of his peers is being assembled out of a pool of four hundred.  Double jeopardy, again, does not apply here since Killen wasn't charged with murder back in 1967.  It's a whole new deal for the 80-year old Baptist preacher, one that a present day jury may not be so easy to forgive the sins of the past.

According to statistical research from Tuskegee University, over 4,700 people were lynched by mobs from 1882 to 1968 (3,400+ were African-American).  On Monday, the Senate began to create a resolution to apologize for past filibusters that foiled three anti-lynching bills that were passed onto the Senate after being approved by the House of Representatives between 1890 and 1952.  Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and George Allen of Virginia introduced the resolution, and with relatives of those lynched in attendance, Sen. Landrieu said on the Senate floor, "the Senate failed you and your ancestors and our nation," by not acting and affirming any of the anti-lynching bills that were presented.  The nonbinding resolution contains the "deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate." 

The prejudice and outright racism that stemmed from the emancipation of the slaves was bitterly tough for African-Americans, which lasted for decades and still remains in some pockets of our country.  It took years for blacks to be able to vote, eat in the same restaurants as whites, sit anywhere on the bus, and attend certain schools.  And lynchings, most prevalent in the South, were just another incredible hurdle to climb over.  If you have ever seen one of the black and white photographs of a young black man hanging from a tree by a homemade noose, don't look at the dead body -- look into the eyes of the white faces of those standing with pride under the dead man's feet.  That's the real unfortunate story of it all.

The warped mindset that permeated whites in the South decades ago was even recalled by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her interview last evening with Chris Matthews on "Hardball. "  She spoke about her grandfather when one day he thought he would be lynched in Alabama. "I remember as a kid the stories about lynchings," said Rice.  "Everybody's family had at least one story in that regard.  You know, my grandfather, who ran away from home at 13 because he'd gotten into an altercation with a white man over something that happened with his sister, and he was pretty sure that if he hung around, that's what was going to happen."  Words from our very own Secretary of State, a black woman from Alabama.  Look how far we've come even with some road yet to travel.

America, through its faults and permanent indentations, will always continue to shine brightly.  The ideals at the heart of our democracy will be here long after we're gone.  Equal rights for all means just that -- no one is left out.  Our country and citizens have not always been perfect, but unlike many nations on this planet we pride ourselves in striving to become better.  We learn from our worst mistakes and atone for our sins.  And for three young civil rights workers and hundreds and hundreds of more, the chimes of freedom toll for them today -- the sound reverberates from our coastal waters to the city streets onto grassy plains and up to the highest rocky mountaintops to be heard loudly by all as we reflect upon what was and what is still to come.

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