After more than four decades, former KKK member Edgar Ray Killen has been convicted of masterminding the Klan murder of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights workers in 1964 Mississippi.
On June 21, a jury — in the same town where everything went down, Philadelphia, Miss. — convicted Killen as the ringleader of a mob that attacked and murdered the three heroes. The 81-year-old murderer now faces 60 years in prison.
Many have cheered, and newspaper editorials around the country are touting the progress that has been made. But while this news is to be welcomed, and some progress has been made — due to the struggles of the African American people, the civil rights movement and young people like Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner — this victory should never be used to obscure the simple fact: America today is still smeared by a virulent racism.
Killen was convicted on manslaughter charges, not for first-degree murder, as he should have been. The trial itself revealed much about current attitudes. The recent mayor of Philadelphia referred to the Klan as a “peaceful organization” that had “done a lot of good.” And, it should be noted, Mississippi’s Trent Lott was not amongst the senators who voted to issue a recent apology on behalf of the entire Senate for not enacting an anti-lynching law.
The problem isn’t just in Mississippi, or even amongst certain individuals — it’s nationwide and systemic. Institutional racism is being pushed and used by those in the very top levels of our nation’s leadership. If it wasn’t racism, what was it that allowed so many African Americans to be denied the right to vote in Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere around the country? Why do African Americans and other people of color have worse health conditions, higher unemployment rates, and lower pay, on average, than whites? The list goes on.
While there are still people like Killen, and, more fundamentally, while there is still an administration and a system that generates racism, this country will need millions more to carry on the traditions of fighting for freedom and equality so personified by Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.