Coming of Age in Mississippi

(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town.  Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)

The current flap about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 shows how complex and mystifying American conservatism can be.  Take John Stossel, for instance.  Color of Change, one of the groups involved in the Jena 6 movement, is trying to force Fox News to fire poor John for suggesting that private businesses should be free to discriminate.  According to Stossel, Southern businesses would have been happy to profit from black business if state law hadn’t mandated the color line.

Mr. Stossel can’t possibly believe his own rhetoric.  State governments enacted and enforced segregation laws because a racist public demanded it.  Businesses with a primarily white clientele turned away black patrons out of a concern for economic survival.  The first white Citizens’ Council was organized in Indianola, Mississippi in the wake of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.  Any move away from strict segregation was punished through economic boycott or, if that didn’t work, physical intimidation.

People living under this state-sponsored, public-sanctioned reign of terror had few good options.   Free-thinkers like Hodding Carter moved as far from orthodox racism as they could manage, but only a handful of white Mississippians endorsed full integration.  In the semi-feudal Mississippi of the 1950s, it was impossible for preachers, newspaper publishers, businessmen and politicians to stand up to this climate of fear and hate.  The only realistic course was to go with the flow.

Things weren’t much better, of course, in the rest of the South.

Confronted by the Solid South, the federal government could trump state law with sweeping civil rights legislation or they could go-along-to-get-along.  For years, presidents staggered back and forth between these two strategies.  Then the assassination of John Kennedy gave Lyndom Johnson a tiny window of opportunity.  Even so, it took all the arm twisting and temper tantrums Johnson could muster to ramrod the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress.

The entire conservative movement sided with the South.  The John Birch Society, Christian Reconstructionists, limited government people, free market fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals, the Daughters of the American Revolution–the entire movement in all its mind-numbing complexity stood foursquare for state’s rights, Jim Crow, segregated schools and the right of public and private institutions to discriminate against people of color.

Have conservatives ever made a clean break with the past?  Not at all.

The civil rights and voting rights acts of 1964 and 1965 were gradually accepted as established law.  Some conservatives adapted to the new world; others stood their ground.  A younger generation of conservatives tried to have it both ways.   They couldn’t ignore the fact that all their ideological mentors backed Jim Crow segregation, so they started re-writing history.

John Stossel’s distinction between racist politicians and a noble business community is but one example.  Rand Paul’s argument that only the government should be barred from discriminatory practices is another variation on the theme.

For ideological conservatives lie Rand Paul and John Stossel the actual past is an embarrassment, so they make up an alternate history.

The current dust-up over social studies textbooks in Texas is another attempt to make history safe for conservative white folks.  Now school children will read the speeches of a successionist Jefferson Davis alongside Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without being told that one view is preferable to the other.  The righteousness of the civil rights movement (once a central tenet of American public orthodoxy) is no longer assumed.

If virtually every American conservative was on the wrong side of history in the 1050s and 60s, history must be altered.

Now there is no righteous civil rights movement confronting the Solid South; just different strokes for different folks.

The folks sponsoring the bogus prosecution of Curtis Flowers are doubtless relieved by these developments.  The formative years of District Attorney Doug Evans and State Senator Lydia Chassaniol (R-Winona) were shaped by a proudly racist orthodoxy (sorry, there’s no polite way of putting this).  The virtue of white supremacy and the vice of “race mixing” passed for common sence when Doug and Lydia entered the first grade and this orthodoxy reigned unchallenged when they graduated from High School in the mid-to-late 60s.

So long as the righteousness of the civil rights movement was trumpeted by network television, unreconstructed white Mississippians were in a difficult position.  The advent of Fox News came as a breath of fresh air.  Fox didn’t denounce the heroes of the civil rights movement, but the subject rarely came up.

It isn’t as if Doug and Lydia have been unaffected by the gut-wrenching change that has gripped Mississippi since they first went to school in the mid-to-late 1950s.

Senator Chassaniol copes by changing the subject.

Listening to Senator David Jordan challenge the bigotry implicit in the voter identification bill, Chassaniol told readers of her Clarion-Ledger blog that she had as much right to complain of bigotry as the next person–people of her gender had once been denied the vote.  “While it is possible to dwell on the inequities of the past,” she said, “it is better to focus on the potential of the future. The problems of the 20th century have been replaced by the real threats to our national security of the 21st.”

Noting the media’s lack of interest in Jesse Jackson’s desire to emasculate Barack Obama, Lydia asked why there had been such a big fuss when Trent Lott whispered to Strom Thurmond that America would be a better country if Thurmond, running 0n the racist Dixiecrat ticket, had been elected president in 1948:

The calm with which this has been reported pales in comparison to the coverage of the innocuous remark made by then Sen. Trent Lott several years ago at the 100th birthday party of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond. Sen. Lott didn’t threaten anyone, but merely wished an elder statesman a happy birthday and said things might not have been so bad if he, Thurmond, had been elected President over half a century ago. While we’ll never know if Sen. Lott was right about Strom Thurmond being elected President, we do know that no one was physically threatened by what he said, and yet, there was a maelstrom of media coverage condemning Lott.

Note the comment, “We’ll never know if Sen. Lott was right about Strom Thurmond being elected President.”  Here’s what Lydia is saying: “An America based on Jim Crow segregation [the heart of Thurmond’s Dixiecrat platform] may or may not have been good for America.”  This suggests that Senator Chassaniol is either a true-blue believer in Jim Crow segregation, or (more likely) she has never allowed the issue to penetrate her conscious thinking in any meaningful way.

This helps explain how she could tell the media, in essence, “I belong to an organization [the Council of Conservative Citizens] that is dedicated to white supremacy, opposed to inter-racial marriage, and wants to bar non-white immigration, but that doesn’t make me a racist.”

A racist, in Lydia’s lexicon, is someone who consciously hates persons on the basis of race.  Since she bears no personal animus to black people, she can’t be a racist.

Lydia Chassaniol was twelve years old when Fannie Lou Hamer was nearly beaten to death in the Montgomery County Jail.  That kind of race-based hatred is hard to find in 21st Century Mississippi.

How does the Senator deal with all of this?  She doesn’t, and she doesn’t have to.  The Mississippi media has learned to ignore embarrassing comments from elected officials that would raise howls of protest in other parts of the Union.

District Attorney Doug Evans doesn’t blog for the Jackson Clarion Ledger (or anyone else), so his views on race and racial justice are more difficult to discern.  Evans may be prosecuting Curtis Flowers for a record-setting sixth time  because he is a tenacious prosecutor who will go to any lengths to bring a guilty man to justice.  Or Evans may be prosecuting this case because he came of age in 1950s Mississippi and made the philosophical adjustments necessary to to the maintenance of security and sanity.

We know that Mr. Evans, like most central Mississippi politicians in the early 1990s, sought the blessing of the Council of Conservative Citizens and spoke at their public events.  There was nothing unusual about this.  Everyone was doing it.  It was the only way to get elected.

I suspect that Doug Evans, like Lydia Chassaniol, rarely dwells on the political upheavals that shaped his childhood and adolescence.  As a prosecutor representing the state of Mississippi, Evans is obligated to pursue justice in an open, fair and even-handed manner.  I suspect he takes this responsibility as seriously as reality permits.

Why then is Evans using bribed witnesses to prosecute a defendant lacking even the shadow of a motive?  How has this prosecutor convinced himself (and dozens of white jurors) that a single gunman could induce four victims to wait passively for their turn to be killed?   Everything we know about this crime suggests the involvement of two gunmen, but Mr. Evans doesn’t have two gunmen to prosecute, so he settles for Curtis Flowers.

I am not trying to demonize Mr. Evans and Ms. Chassaniol (although I could forgive them for thinking otherwise); I am trying to place their passionate pursuit of an innocent man in historical context.

In trial number fourm all five black jurors held out for acquittal.  This was a sure sign that Winona’s black residents weren’t buying the prosecution’s theory of the crime.

It is here that Doug Evans joins hands with Earl Wayne Patridge, the sheriff who ordered the beating of Fannie Lou Hamer.  Neither man is intimidated by black opinion.

3 thoughts on “Coming of Age in Mississippi

  1. You are living in the past. I think you should get on with your life. We Mississippi working people do not dwell on the past but WORK

  2. (sorry about accidentally hitting prematurely) I was saying working people here do not have time to dwell on the past but we are going forward. It takes someone from out-of-state to come here and remind us of the past for which we are not proud. HOWEVER, for the most part, it was not us who discriminated. It was our great grandparents. Also I want to remind you Doug Evans is an elected official and he is retrying this case because the people in his district want it and because of the last word in the name of your organization. I’m sorry you cannot even think this may be the case. You must not believe in representative democracy.

  3. Doug Evans does not believe in the Seven Dwarfs either, but that does not preclude his inclination to win this case at all costs, even if the costs are justice and respect for human dignity.

    Prosecutors should not play the justice system as a contest to see whose story wins, but their interest should be the same as the state’s, (presumably, to punish the guilty and free the innocent.)

    The more evidence that exists to confirm innocence does not imply a greater need to construct a false case for guilt. The idea that winning comes before justice is a symptom of mental illness, not a prescription for coping with reality.

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