June 16, 2005

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if justice wasnít blind? There are plenty of folks that must have believed that Lady Justice truly was blind, especially the followers of the Civil Rights movement. But the legal system is dispelling the fact that as we get older, our sight worsens. As a matter of fact, Lady Justice seems to have miraculously regained her sight as a number of Civil Rights cases dating back to the 1960ís are finally finding justice in United States Courts.

Iím 34, was born in 1971, so most of my knowledge of this era in American history has come from movies such as Mississippi Burning and Ghosts of Mississippi, a couple of films made in the late 1980s, early 1990ís. I find it ironic, that movies were made about the cases sooner than justice was served. Then again, maybe it took putting these crimes on the big screen to get enough people interested in the fact that less than 50 years ago, people were getting away with murdering people because they were a different color. I wasnít even alive when all-white juries let murderers like Byron De La Beckwith or Bobby Frank Cherry go free, yet I canít help but feel guilty. I feel the same way when I watch Dances With Wolves and I definitely am not old enough to have had any part in chasing the Indians off their land.

Guilt is a powerful emotion. Apparently enough people felt the same way I did after seeing these films, or reading the history of similar cases. There have been at least half a dozen convictions in the past decade in infamous Civil Rights cases that previously had not received justice.

Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of murdering NAACP leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963. He was tried twice for the crime in 1964 but the all-white juries could not reach a verdict. In 1996 a Mississippi jury had no trouble finding the self-proclaimed white supremacist guilty and he died in prison in 2001,

Bobby Frank Cherry was found guilty by an Alabama jury in 2002 for the bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four black girls. It only took 39 years for justice to be served following the 1963 crime. Cherry died last year in prison at the age of 74 after serving a little more than two years following roughly 37 years of freedom between the time of his crime and his conviction.

Will the same fate await Edgar Ray Killen, age 80, of Mississippi? Killen is going on trial this week for the murders of three Civil Rights workers in Philadelphia, MS, back in 1964. The case was made famous by the 1988 movie, Mississippi Burning. Killen escaped justice in 1967 when a jury deadlocked with one lone juror voting not guilty.

But jurors arenít the only ones with a conscience.

Earlier this week the United States Senate officially apologized for failing to pass legislation banning lynching. While the law likely would not have saved the lives of the estimated 5,000 blacks that were murdered in this brutal fashion associated with our nationís struggle with racism, it still stands out like a sore thumb that our leaders never could get such a law passed.

Of course, it wasnít for a lack of trying. Over a 70-year period between 1890 and 1960 more than 200 bills were introduced to officially outlaw lynching. But the legislation often fell victim to Senate filibusters. Weíre sure lucky our elected officials still have this powerful tool to protect such national institutions as lynching. I believe if I had been a senator witnessing one of my fellow legislators stalling against an anti-lynching vote, I would have suggested he wear a noose around his neck during his speech.

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