Saturday, July 5, 2014

Fifth of July: Our not-quite freedom summer

MAYA ANGELOU took to Twitter on May 23 to send us a message, using the uncaged blue bird of the Internet to sing to us one more time. “Listen to yourself,” she tweeted, “and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

And then, five days later, at the age of 86, she was gone. And like before, like always, she was everywhere.

She was so much and so long a part of our cultural foundation, it’s hard to think of when her voice and grace and style weren’t around to carry us through the rough passages of the national life. Her poetical voice speaks eloquently for itself; what’s been less thoroughly documented in the reservoir of posthumous praise is her standing as a rights activist in the 50’s and 60’s.

From her work with W.E.B. duBois in Ghana to a leadership role in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, elbow to elbow with Martin Luther King Jr., to taking her place with Malcolm X in internationalizing the scope of understanding America’s racial dilemma, she set an example of all of us.

Her absence preceded another, one more deficit in the great American chain. The death of Ruby Dee, on June 11 at the age of 91, was another body blow for anyone who valued her work as an actress (from “Raisin in the Sun” to “American Gangster”) and another civil rights activist at the height of that era of our troubles.

Their losses, their absence on the cusp of this historic American season are measured against those of 50 years earlier, and the gains we’ve made since. Against all odds.

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In its reliable zeal for even-numbered observances, the media takes note of this as the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the time of the historic voter registration drive meant to emancipate the American South of an undying racially-inspired chicanery at the ballot box.

June 21 marked the 50th anniversary of the disappearance of Michael Henry Schwerner, James Earl Chaney and Andrew Goodman, the triptych saints of Freedom Summer, three men who came south to register African Americans to vote, and who were shot to death sometime that day, their Ford station wagon torched and their bodies bulldozed 17 feet under an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss. They wouldn’t be discovered for another six weeks.

In a federal trial in 1967, seven men were convicted of federal charges of conspiracy and violating the workers’ civil rights. They were sentenced to prison terms of from three to 10 years. Edgar Killen, a Baptist minister and former recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan, was tried for the killings, but escaped conviction when a lone juror refused to convict him. Seven others also were acquitted.

In January 2005 Killen was arrested again, this time on state charges. His state trial began in June 2005, and he was convicted of manslaughter later that month. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal of his conviction last November.

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FOR MISSISSIPPI — an epicenter of the nation’s racial upheavals and a barometer of its changing racial tolerance — past is prologue. Benjamin Chaney, James’ younger brother, told me in June 2005: “If there was any interest on the part of the state of Mississippi to bring these people to justice, then all the people still alive and involved in this would have been brought to the grand jury.”

“We have all the evidence showing law enforcement officers involved," said Dave Dennis, the co-organizer of Freedom Summer, in June 2005. "The people who did this were much more widespread. ... This was a conspiracy on the part of the state of Mississippi and its elected officials to deter African Americans from their constitutional right to vote.”
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