Racial Healing In Mississippi

A tale of two men who reveal the best and worst of the South

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"So they began to work them over, the three,
But most the dark one,
Bones smashed like sugarcane
In a molasses of blood,
Reduced them, young man by young man,
To a sobbing retching mass, partly conscious,
Till the three hearts shuddered and stopped
To the five bullets they shared, unevenly."

- Elizabeth Sewell, "This Land Was Theirs Before They Were the Land's," 1964

PHILADELPHIA, MISS. - It was a rhetorical question, but one freighted with implication for this town and the surrounding Neshoba County. For Mississippi and the South, as well.It was a question that should inspire those throughout the South who long for justice and reconciliation.

And it was a question that should haunt diseased souls, especially those of Mississippi's two U.S. senators, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, who still play the race card and see little need to heal the South's wounds left from decades of terror, beatings, shootings, church bombings, cross burnings - and almost 4,800 lynchings between 1882 and 1964.

The question, sweeping in its simplicity, from retired Neshoba Democrat editor Stanley Dearman:

"Can you believe that this town produced Dick Molpus and Edgar Ray Killen?"

The polarity between the two men is an eloquent metaphor for the South - Killen the distilled, arrogant essence of evil; Molpus an ever-evolving archetype of what's good in the Southland.

Ku Klux Klansman Killen was convicted last week on three counts of manslaughter for organizing the June 21, 1964, murders of three Civil Rights workers, Michael "Mickey" Schwerner, Andrew "Andy" Goodman and James "J.E." Chaney.

Garbed in a yellow prison outfit - his days of brightly embroidered Klan robes are likely behind him forever - Killen on June 23 was given a triple dose of 20-year sentences. Sixty years in the big house should ensure that the 80-year-old white supremacist never again befouls the streets of Philadelphia. Several times in the hours after his sentencing, Philadelphians remarked to me with verbal winks that they hoped Killen had a long, long life. Such as living to, oh, say, 140 years.

And who is Dick Molpus? Mississippians remember him as a former secretary of state and candidate for governor whose political aspirations crashed and burned after he denounced the state's racist past.

Far more important than his resume, however, Molpus is credited with inspiring a citizens' movement - the Philadelphia Coalition - that took root and grew into a quest for justice, culminating in Killen's conviction.

"I think that without the courage Dick showed in 1989, when unscripted he told the families of the murdered Civil Rights workers that 'I apologize' for what happened in his town and his state, well, I'm not sure that all of the rest would have happened," says Fent DeWeese, a lawyer and member of the Philadelphia Coalition.

The occasion of Molpus' seismic-shock speech was the 25th anniversary memorial of the murders. In 2004, Molpus spoke again, at the 40th anniversary service. The scene was the Mt. Zion Methodist Church, which five days before the 1964 murders had been torched by the Klan, its congregation beaten by cowards in hoods.

In the audience last year was Gov. Haley Barbour - who had defeated an incumbent in 2003 by, in part, subtly invoking the emblems of segregation. Molpus took careful aim at Barbour, Lott and the other Dixiecrats in Republican clothing, and proclaimed:

"Few politicians today use outright race baiting, but we still have some that use the symbols and utter the phrases and everyone knows what the code is."

Jim Prince, current editor of the Democrat, succinctly sums up Molpus' assault on the state's leading politicians: "courage."

Molpus deflects the praise. "I'm flattered by what people say about me. And if the price I paid was that I got beat [in the 1995 loss to GOP incumbent Gov. Kirk Fordice], well, that's small compared to what we've accomplished.

"But remember that I'm no different than most folks around here," Molpus says. "I didn't start out being who I am today. I grew. Our town and state have grown."

So, let's use Molpus' trajectory as a guide to that most elusive of Southern grails: race reconciliation.

"[T]his investigation discloses that there appeared to be a conspiracy on the part of the prime suspects; namely, the Sheriff, his Deputy, and others who are closely associated with the Sheriff's Office who either were in law enforcement or had formerly been in law enforcement, to deprive the colored population of their civil rights."

- FBI memo in the MIBURN (Mississippi Burning) file, Sept. 18, 1964

I've made two pilgrimages to Philadelphia in the last three months, the most recent to witness Killen's trial. During the first, I met Molpus at the house where he grew up, and where his mother still lives, During that visit, Molpus pointed and said, "That's the Turner Catledge chair. Right there is where he sat." Catledge is best known as a correspondent and managing editor for the New York Times. But he was raised in Philadelphia and began his newspaper career running errands for the Neshoba Democrat.

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