The Sunday Times: Ferguson is burning as Mississippi did. In 50 years we haven’t learnt

Photo: Katleen Vanacker

Photo: Katleen Vanacker

The slaughter of innocents cries out for justice. That is precisely what happened on Monday, when a terrible race crime finally received closure. Although the murder must never be forgotten, Americans can now feel some satisfaction that the proper recognition has taken place. As President Barack Obama said: “We must continue to fight for the ideals of equality and justice for which they gave their lives.”

No, I have not lost my mind. All this did happen. But, as you may have guessed, I am not referring to the announcement in Ferguson, Missouri, that no charges would be brought against the white policeman who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. I’m talking about an event that took place 50 years ago in Neshoba County, Mississippi, when three civil rights workers — two white and one black, named Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney — were killed by the Ku Klux Klan. At the White House the three men were posthumously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in America.

The reason I’m linking Ferguson with Mississippi Burning (as the event is known) is not the piquancy of having the two events on the same day — although it cannot be ignored — but that there is a clarity that comes with historical perspective.

Lord knows, this is something we need in order to heal the growing racial divide in America. Instead, we have the unedifying sight of cops reaching for guns, protesters for Molotov cocktails and pundits for statistics. Whatever the motives of each constituency, the net result is an inflamed situation in which more energy is spent on “blamestorming” than on finding solutions.

What does the history of Mississippi Burning tell us that we cannot learn from statistics about America — such as that, in 2012, 9.7% of white people but 27.2% of black people were living below the poverty threshold of $23,492 for a family of four? Actually, a great deal, particularly about the historical relationship between black communities and the white establishment.

For all but the past 50 years of American history the race riot was an exclusively white phenomenon — a weapon used by poor urban whites to terrorise even poorer blacks. Beginning in the early 19th century, black communities would be periodically devastated, their businesses destroyed and homes burnt.

One of the earliest race riots took place in 1829 in Cincinnati, Ohio: a mob of 300 whites drove out half of the 2,000-strong black population. In 1863, during the Civil War, the New York draft riots lasted for four days as a largely working-class Irish mob vented its fury at the army conscription system by going on the rampage against the free blacks of the city. The death toll was over 100 and included 12 black men who were lynched.

Missouri never witnessed the extreme violence that consumed New York, but between 1894 and 1906 the state suffered a cluster of race riots that resulted in at least eight lynchings and the near-eradication of black communities from four towns.

Mark Twain, who came from Missouri, was so disgusted that in 1901 he wrote an essay called The United States of Lyncherdom. That was the year of 130 lynchings: five of them white, the rest black. Twain’s views were so out of step with the country that the essay did not appear until 1923, 13 years after his death.

Even after the Second World War whites continued to victimise black communities with impunity. Lynching was still in practice, too, albeit vastly reduced. The last recorded lynching was that of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney in 1964 — by then, 3,445 blacks had died that way since 1882. The Mississippi Burning case reflected the terrible truth about almost all the lynchings — those in charge of protecting civil order were complicit in the crime. No one was convicted for the Neshoba murders (although seven were convicted for civil rights violations, including the county’s deputy sheriff) until Edgar Killen, a Baptist preacher, was given a 60-year prison sentence for manslaughter in 2005.

The pivotal year in terms of racial violence was 1964. This was when the race riot changed from being a tool of oppression to an expression of protest.There were at least eight that year, a number that seemed extraordinary until the 159 separate outbreaks in 1967. It was in response to the escalating racial violence that President Lyndon Johnson commissioned the civic study known as the Kerner report. The authors’ conclusion was stark: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal… To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarisation of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”

In their view, the chief target of the riots was not white people per se, but “symbols of white American society, authority and property”, since these represented their oppression. The authors also noted that black people were living in neighbourhoods with substandard housing, poor amenities, anarchic schools and high levels of violence: “Crime, drug addiction, dependency on welfare and bitterness and resentment against society in general and white society in particular are the result.” The “unfulfilled expectations aroused by the great judicial and legislative victories of the civil rights movement” were also fuelling the protesters’ anger.

What’s so striking about these quotations is how easily they could be applied to Ferguson today. The root causes of black protest and the raw deal meted out to black communities were clearly identified in 1968 and have not changed markedly.

What makes this worse is that the Kerner report itself quoted the foremost black psychologist of the day, Kenneth B Clark, as essentially saying the same thing about the previous 50 years: “It is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35.”

It took 50 years for Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney to receive their due. There aren’t another 50 years to waste while successive governments dither over how to address racial injustice. We have right now and not much time afterwards.

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