Early this month the Federal Bureau of Investigation revealed that it has compiled a list of 51 still-unsolved murders reported in connection with Southern civil rights campaigns during the 1950s and 60s. Congressman John Lewis has called for funding their investigation.
The number of unsolved cases suggests that activists and sympathizers of the Movement, as it was called, were participants, not merely in a series of protests, but in an unrecognized and asymmetric civil war.
The nation hasn’t called the civil rights turmoil a war, and the consequence of its lexicon of evasion and elision has been a failure to honor, absolve and compensate hundreds of its veterans.
Those who were killed and brutalized by racists during that period have not been termed, Argentine- or Mexican-style, victims of a “Dirty War,” nor have civil rights soldiers been honored as war heroes, perhaps they were pledged to a strategy of nonviolence–and kept their word. But on the other side of the war, as the FBI’s list makes clear, violence was S.O.P., Standard Operating Procedure.
Dozens bombings and burnings of churches, schools and stores, “acts of terror,” we’d say today, are still officially untallied, not scheduled for even an FBI review. Nor are hundreds of attacks in which bullets missed their marks. Many of these assaults were carried out by Ku Klux Klansmen who, in the current lexicon, would be styled as “members of a Christian extremist militia.” If there’s collusion today between the Malaki government and the Mehdi army, it is a mirror of the nexus between Southern lawmen and the Klan.
Commentators and historians have avoided the term “displacement of the civilian population” to describe events of the civil rights movement. Yet the tents of black sharecroppers who were evicted from their homes for attempting to vote dotted woodlands across the South. In plain language, theirs were “refugee camps.”
For a decade after the conflict ended, Movement activists suffered from the symptoms of what is today called, usually in reference to veterans of the Vietnam and Iraq wars, “post traumatic stress disorder.” If their recurrent nightmares of beatings and threats were not diagnosed as symptoms of PTSD, it was because for them, there was no VA.
The civil rights war was concluded by legislative acts and consensus, not by a document of surrender. Had such a treaty been written, it would evoke dismay because the war’s apparent victors and vanquished, its winners and losers, were confused, even reversed, under the terms of the peace.
SNCC organizer Michael Schwerner, for example, left a widow, as did NAACP leader Medgar Evers, and no doubt, several of the dead on the FBI’s list of 51. Yet there was and is no program for compensating the survivors of those who gave their lives in the civil rights war-on the side that presumably won, anyway.
Had things been the other way around–had Schwerner had a hand in killing Neshoba county deputy Cecil Price–the lawman’s survivors would have received a pension, as did equally murderous and sadistic cops who stayed at their jobs until retirement day. The families of civil rights soldiers like Evers and Schwerner were not accorded so much as a burial flag.
A part of the job of white Movement volunteers like Schwerner was being what we’d today call “human shields;” kindred souls are now playing that role in Colombia. Human shields are not of service unless the locals they protect are facing death squads, to whose Southern existence both his death and the FBI’s list of 51 attest.
Dozens Movement organizers were sentenced to prison terms for their advocacy, among them a half-dozen who organized boycotts of segregated schools in Georgia; their crime, according to the books-and civil rights convictions have not been expunged-was contributing to the delinquency of minors. Though we might presume they are heroes today, legally, they are merely felons.
This month Americans celebrate Black History Month and pay homage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet on the grounds of most Southern courthouses still stand monuments to Our Confederate Dead-the ‘Our’ excluding everyone, black or white, who raised a voice to clamor for racial justice. It’s as if the movement for African-American equality ended in a draw.
Most Americans, I believe, wish the FBI God’speed and good luck in identifying, locating and convicting the killers of the 51 victims named on its list. But “despite high-profile convictions during the past two decades, most killers from the civil rights era will go unpunished,” USA Today predicted in reporting the FBI listing.
The Movement’s veterans, like most of its persecutors, are nearing the grave; hundreds have already died. Thanks to the circumspection of our vocabulary, i.e., thanks to verbal whitewashing, surviving veterans are unlikely live to hear the events of their lives called by their proper names.
DICK J. REAVIS is an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University and author of If White Kids Die. He can be reached at email@example.com.