Mississippi's burning issue


Mississippi is the poorest, most obese and least literate US state, but its history of racial segregation lies at the root of its problems. Today our series on the American South visits the state capital, Jackson


The state’s history runs in a straight but tortured line from the defence of owning other human beings as property in the 1860s to the refusal to grant them equal rights 100 years later. Some Mississippians called the civil-rights movement “the second reconstruction”, the first being the hated 12 years following the American Civil War, when northerners lorded it over the South.

“Whites were terrified by the relative success of black people during reconstruction,” says historian Robert Luckett of Jackson State University.

In 1892, white Mississippi contrived a new state constitution which deprived blacks of the right to vote through poll taxes and literacy tests. The model was copied by other former Confederate states. For whites, the entrenchment of Jim Crow laws – the legal foundation of segregation – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the “era of redemption”.

Luckett, who is white, says the success of slavery explains why white Mississippians were responsible for the fiercest, most murderous backlash against the civil-rights movement.

“Mississippi had more slaves to grow more cotton to make more money than any other state,” he says. “Slavery was already an inherently violent system, predicated on the physical internment of black people. The number of black people required to maintain the system was higher, so the amount of violence and the nature of race relations had to be correspondingly hard.”

Today, Mississippi leads every “worst” list in the US. It is the poorest and most obese state, with the highest rates of infant mortality, teen pregnancy and high-school dropouts. It also has the highest percentage of black residents, nearly 40 per cent of the population. As the novelist William Faulkner wrote: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”

Faulkner is part of what Jerry Mitchell calls Mississippi’s paradox: it has formed great writers such as Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Richard Wright, yet it has record levels of illiteracy; it has the poorest people living on the richest soil; and it’s a place that calls itself “the hospitality state”, yet holds the record for the most lynchings, at least 581 between 1882 and 1968.

In Mississippi, the white backlash against the civil-rights movement was official policy, organised by respectable members of society and financed by the state government. Within weeks of the US supreme court’s 1954 decision to desegregate schools in the Brown v Board of Education case, Mississippi’s leaders formed the White Citizens’ Council, later the Citizens’ Council, whose sole purpose was to fight desegregation.

Two years later, the state legislature set up the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which Mitchell describes as “a state segregation, spy and propaganda agency”. The commission funded the Citizens’ Council, and together they fought the desegregation of schools until 1971, when the supreme court ordered Mississippi to comply. Half a million white students immediately left the public-school system for private white academies.

To this day, says William Winter, a former governor of Mississippi, 99 per cent of students in Jackson’s public schools are black.

AS STATE TAX COLLECTOR and treasurer in the early 1960s, Winter was part of a system that subjugated blacks. “Everyone was,” says Winter, who still practises law at the age of 88. “You were not able to live in Mississippi as a white person if you were not a segregationist. We lived in a very closed society.”

In 2007 the FBI announced that it was reopening more than 100 unsolved murder cases in the South from the civil-rights era. By then, Mitchell, who is also white, had ensured that four white supremacists who had committed murder were sent to jail. Mitchell has been called “the Simon Wiesenthal of the South” and has won more than 30 national press awards for his work. His memoir, Race Against Time, will be published by Simon and Shuster in 2013.

Mitchell started investigating cold cases in 1989, when he learned that the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission had classified 130,000 pages of documents for 50 years. “Being a cynical journalist, I thought there was something in there or they wouldn’t be sealing it for 50 years,” he says.

Mitchell’s first coup was the conviction in 1994 – 30 years after the crime – of Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the Citizens’ Council who hid in a honeysuckle bush outside the Jackson home of Medgar Evers, the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. De La Beckwith shot Evers in the back with a high-powered rifle in June 1963. His fingerprints were on the gun. But the Citizens’ Council set up a fund for his defence and the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission ensured that unsympathetic jurors were disqualified.

Mississippi’s segregationist governor, Ross Barnett, went to court to shake De La Beckwith’s hand. Two white juries freed him, until Mitchell’s reporting reopened the case. De La Beckwith died in prison in 2001.

The racial composition of juries remains an insoluble problem in Mississippi. “You give me a case where a black person is accused of doing anything to a white person,” says Chokwe Lumumba, an African-American criminal defence lawyer. “If you get a white jury, you haven’t got a hope.”

For example, Curtis Flowers, who is black, has been tried six times on murder charges and is now awaiting a decision by the state supreme court on the fairness of his third death sentence.

THE KU KLUX KLAN didn’t organise in Mississippi until late 1963, because the Citizens’ Council and the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, in league with law-enforcement officers, did the dirty work for white supremacists. That’s why it provoked such an outcry when Mississippi’s current Republican governor, Haley Barbour, last December called the council “an organisation of town leaders” and said “I just don’t remember it as being that bad” before and during the civil-rights period.

On June 21st, 1964, the White Knights branch of the Klan murdered three civil-rights workers: James Chaney, who was black, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were white. The case is known by its FBI code name, Mississippi Burning and was the inspiration for a 1988 film of that name, loosely based on the events.

The corpses of the victims were buried in an earthen dam on land belonging to a local man, Olen Burrage. An FBI informant said Burrage boasted to Klansmen shortly before the killing that his dam would “hold a hundred” civil-rights activists.

Mitchell believes that Burrage, Richard Willis, a former police officer, and Pete Harris, a Klansman who vowed to “take care of” the three, were involved in Mississippi Burning. Now in their 70s and 80s, the men have not been charged.

“I publish their names as often as possible. If they don’t get prosecuted, at least they’ll be known,” Mitchell says.

Sometimes culprits provide clues themselves. In 1999, Mitchell invited Edgar Ray Killen and his wife to eat catfish in a restaurant. He asked Killen whether he had anything to do with Mississippi Burning.

“I’m not gonna say they’re wrong,” Killen said of the murderers. Killen also told Mitchell that when Martin Luther King jnr was assassinated in 1968, the FBI knocked on his door. “I asked them: ‘Who killed King? I want to shake his hand.’”

Due to Mitchell’s investigative reporting, Killen was convicted of manslaughter in the Mississippi Burning case in 2005 – 41 years after the killings – and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Jackson’s airport terminal was rechristened for Medgar Evers, the slain black leader, in 2009. But the airfield still bears the name of Allen C Thompson, the segregationist mayor of Jackson throughout the civil-rights period. “They would probably both turn in their graves if they knew,” says Luckett.

The Ross Barnett Reservoir, a huge lake that serves as Mississippi’s largest source of drinking water, is named for the racist governor who shook Byron De La Beckwith’s hand. Jackson’s federal courthouse bears the name of Sen James Eastland, who denounced the US supreme court’s order to desegregate schools as “tyranny”.

Despite Mississippi’s terrible history there are positive signs. The state today has more black elected officials than any other, and a recent survey showed it has the highest percentage of interracial marriages (though some question this data). Old men such as William Winter have recognised the injustice done to African-Americans, and are striving for reconciliation.

Only this year, Mississippi decided to build a museum to the civil-rights movement, long after other Southern states. The subject will appear on the school social-studies curriculum for the first time this autumn.

“There are many fair-minded, progressive people who are working to change the system,” says Luckett. “But there are a lot more on the other side who don’t want change. That’s why it’s taking so long.”