The black-and-white photograph is a glimpse of American life. These are working-class men, smirking and smiling, seated in rows as if they’re taking in a show. Up front, the most prominent slouches in his chair with one leg crossed over the other so his pants come a few inches shy of the top of his boot. His cheek is already full, and he’s reaching into his bag of Red Man for another pinch. He’s clearly enjoying himself.
It is for certain a glimpse of American life. Except it isn’t a show. It’s a trial. These are the men who murdered three civil rights workers in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. The grinning man with the chewing tobacco is the county sheriff. The Klansman sitting beside him is his deputy.
The state of Mississippi refused to indict the murderers. Since murder wasn’t a federal crime, they were prosecuted under an 1870 federal law for violating the dead men’s civil rights by killing them.
The all-white jury acquitted the sheriff and eight other defendants, failed to reach a verdict on three and in what was regarded as a stunning civil rights victory, convicted seven, including the deputy. For the deputy’s central role in three murders, the judge sentenced him to 6 years in prison. He served 4½.
When questioned about the light sentences he handed down, the judge replied, “They killed one n*****, one Jew and a white man. I gave them what I thought they deserved.”
The judge’s defiance and the old picture offer perspective. Racist violence has been, and still is, a feature of American life. But over decades of grief and injustice, outrageous words and attitudes that were once unabashed and commonplace, like the judge’s blatant bigotry and the Klansmen’s smug impunity, had until recent years grown rarer, or at least been compelled by public censure to recede from public view.
In 2005, 40 years after his acquittal for violating the dead men’s civil rights, the local preacher, who’d also been a Klan leader, was tried for murder by the state of Mississippi and convicted. He died in prison.
Viola Liuzzo was a white civil rights volunteer. She was murdered in 1965 when four Klansmen drove alongside her car and shot her in the face. When an all-white jury acquitted her killers, the federal government again prosecuted murderers for violating a dead American’s civil rights.
Four girls died when Klansmen bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963. Fourteen years later, the local Klan leader, was convicted. Two additional bombers were convicted in 2001 and 2002. All three died in prison.
The year the church was bombed, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot in the back in his driveway. The governor of Mississippi appeared at the trial to publicly shake the murderer’s hand. After two all-white jury mistrials and 31 years at liberty, the murderer, a founding member of Mississippi’s White Citizens Council, was successfully prosecuted. He died in prison.
Indigenous Americans suffered along a continental Trail of Tears. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act 50 years before Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship.
For freed slaves, Reconstruction was a terror-punctuated interval between slave codes that harshly restricted the rights of slaves and Black codes that nearly as harshly restricted the rights of freed slaves and their descendants.
Dred Scott was a slave who’d traveled with his owner to a free territory. Scott claimed that, as a result, he was free. In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled he was property and still a slave, that Black people could never be citizens and he, therefore, couldn’t sue in federal court.
Homer Plessy was arrested when he tried to ride in a white train car. He asserted segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1896, the Supreme Court considered Mr. Plessy’s suit but ruled that segregated “separate but equal” facilities were legal.
In 1954, the Supreme Court heard a suit brought by a Black father on behalf of his 12-year-old daughter. Oliver Brown asserted segregated schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court ruled unanimously that segregated schools are unconstitutional and separate facilities are “inherently unequal.”
The struggle from Scott to Plessy to Brown took a century. No one can gainsay the blood spilled over those hundred years. Neither can anyone gainsay the progress.
Sometimes, progress consists of replacing an injustice with something less unjust.
Making progress is the point.
We reverse that progress at our peril.
Four years of license from a race-baiting president have roused and given voice to the worst in us. Trump’s “stolen election” lie, the insurrection he incited and Republican political interests have spawned state-based legislation that threatens minority voting rights.
Asian Americans are the victims of a wave of hate and violence.
New Republican-sponsored “anti-riot” laws target and impede peaceful protests.
Republican politicians are stoking rumors of a nonexistent “great replacement” campaign to “remake the demographics of America” by “replacing national-born Americans” with nonwhite immigrants. Trumpists have raised the banner and specter of “America First” and our “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions,” longstanding Klan code for white supremacy.
Only white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were eligible for Klan membership. Organizations like the 1920s Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America opposed immigration from anywhere other than northern Europe.
A recruiting leaflet distributed in Mississippi the year the three men were murdered, excludes Jews, Catholics, Orientals and Negroes from Klan membership. It declares republics uniquely exist “only where Anglo-Saxons control the Governmental Machinery of a Nation.” That’s why “true American Anglo-Saxons” must employ “every means at their command” in what has “become a Life and Death matter.”
Behold our Anglo-Saxon “tradition.”
Today’s photographs come from cellphones and dashboard cameras, and we’ve seen too many. Even worse are the demagogues who exploit our fears for their own political gain. But the societal cancer in that old courtroom image goes beyond the incompetence, misconduct or malice of any individual officer or citizen. The malignancy lies in what that grinning sheriff knows about his community — their broad acquiescence and complicity in his evil, whether expressed in their silent consent, their words or their deeds.
We are marked and known by the evil we condone.
And the sheriff is back.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.