The last time I was there, Philadelphia, Miss., was a sleepy town with low buildings and half-empty streets, the county seat of rural Neshoba County. I had arrived with Ben Chaney, the younger brother of James Chaney, one of three civil rights workers murdered there by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964.
Now it was 1988, and Chaney and I walked warily through the streets. We traveled up Rock Cut Road, a desolate strip of red clay outside town, hunting for the spot where his brother, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had been shot. I knocked on the door of Cecil Price, the deputy sheriff who had arrested the three young men and delivered them into the hands of the Klan, and who served four years in prison for doing so. Price chatted briefly through the screen. “Oh, let’s just let bygones be bygones, why don’t we,” he said.
Today another 21 years have passed. Price is dead, after falling from a lift at an equipment rental store in 2001. In 2005, 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen, a wheelchair-bound former Klan leader, was convicted in connection with the deaths and given 60 years.
And on Tuesday, a black man, James A. Young, was elected mayor of Philadelphia.
So is it finally time to let bygones be bygones? Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were working that summer to register voters against a backdrop of literacy tests, poll taxes and black disenfranchisement. Surely the election of a black mayor means those bad old days are behind us.
That’s the same argument you’ll hear in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 vs. Holder, which is to be decided any day by the Supreme Court. In it, the court has been asked to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed in the aftermath of the Philadelphia killings. Section 5 requires jurisdictions with histories of flagrant voting discrimination to pre-clear changes in election practices with the federal government.
Section 5, critics say, is no longer necessary. “The America that has elected Barack Obama ... is far different than when Section 5 was first enacted,” wrote Austin’s lawyers.
But is that true? Yes, poll taxes are gone and gerrymandering generally works in favor of African Americans. Mississippi today has more black officials than any other state. Yet voting discrimination still exists, according to Congress.
As for the broader notion that conservatives are pushing -- that our historic race problem has been solved and our remedies are anachronistic -- that’s naive. Schools remain effectively segregated in many areas. Black male joblessness is double the white rate; the black poverty rate is nearly triple the white rate.
While congratulations are due to Mayor Young, we still have a ways to go.
-- Nicholas Goldberg