The Fierce Urgency of Then: What We Can—And Must—Learn from the Past

This compelling guest post is by Renee Romano, Associate Professor of History at Oberlin College.  Renee is currently working on a book entitled, Justice Delayed: Civil Rights Trials and America’s Racial Reckoning.  

On a blazingly hot Saturday this past June, a large group gathered to honor the memory of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner, three civil rights workers murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi in 1964. As we visited key sites associated with their deaths, ministers offered prayers, activists sang freedom songs, and many of the participants called passionately for more trials to bring the men who committed this murder to justice.

As powerful as the day was, a few there wondered whether this attention to the past served more as an expression of nostalgia for former activists than a critical form of political engagement. Given that critics have charged those who have lobbied authorities to reopen decades-old murders with reopening old wounds, living in the past, and wasting resources, it seems fair to ask whether there is a point to reliving this history.

This question is especially relevant for activists today who are fighting against contemporary racism and inequalities. When there is so much today to be done—trying to free Curtis Flowers from an unfair and biased justice system provides just one example—is focusing on the racial wrongs of the past worthwhile? My own research into the efforts to reopen cases of civil rights era murders have convinced me that fostering a meaningful engagement with the past is vital for those fighting for social and legal justice.

Why should we still be talking about events that happened forty or fifty years ago? What’s at stake in whether the nation is forced to confront its history of racial violence fully and forthrightly?

First, we must acknowledge that ignoring a painful past does not make it go away. Americans as a people tend to be forward-looking, to believe that little good can come from dwelling on the past; better to simply forget it and move on. But there are certain pasts that cannot be forgotten so quickly, and that, indeed, it is dangerous to forget or to repress. Religious scholar, Solomon Schimmel has called these “wounds not healed by time,” while Bishop Desmond Tutu refers to them as pasts that “refuse to lie down quietly.”[1]

The violence and legal travesties of the civil rights era represent just such a past that “refuses to lie down quietly.” We don’t actually know how many men, women, and children were killed in the 1950s and 1960s in what might be termed “civil rights era” racial violence. The FBI has unearthed over 100 cold cases from the civil rights era that were not resolved at the time, and there are likely significantly more that may never come to light. But only eleven of these murders resulted in any kind of trial or legal reckoning at the time, whether on the state or federal level.[2] In other words, over ninety per cent of those murder cases did not generate any kind of legal response at the time. And in the handful of cases that actually came before a court, juries typically could not settle on a verdict or refused to convict, even when the defendants had confessed to the crime. The few who were sentenced to jail for a civil rights era murder, moreover, served very little time. Most spent less than six years in jail, and some served no jail time at all. The two teenagers convicted of shooting 13-year old Virgil Ware in Birmingham in 1963, for example, got a scolding and a suspended sentence from the judge. As Ware’s brother noted wryly years after the crime, “You could get more time back then for killing a good hunting dog.”[3]

Both the killings and the utter failure of American institutions to respond to them have had long-term affects, not only on the friends and family of the victims, but on the larger communities in which they took place. Although the sites of these killings were not marked by memorials or plaques, they were not—could not be—forgotten. Even today, the conflict remains potent enough that gravesites of civil rights era murder victims are vandalized. Historic acts of violence can continue to shape social relations for decades, contributing to “distrust, fear and resentment,” in the words of legal scholar Sherilynn Ifill who has studied the impact of several lynchings in 1930s Maryland.[4]  The racial violence of the 1950s and 1960s, like other historical injustices, has legacies for the present, both in informing people’s identities and in shaping social structures.

Renee Romano

So we must grapple with this history because it continues to affect us and the world we live in—it must be part of any honest conversation about people’s sense of comfort or fear in public, about their attitudes towards other racial groups, and about their political views. But grappling with the history of civil rights era violence is also important because of what it can teach us about racism in America. This civil rights era violence was a form a state-sanctioned terrorism. These murders were not isolated, individual acts. Although it was often Klan members or sympathizers who actually did the beatings and shootings, law enforcement agencies, state spying agencies, and political authorities assisted them, both directly and indirectly.

At a time when white supremacy was being challenged in the courts and in public demonstrations, those committed to upholding segregation turned to economic intimidation, legal persecution, political organizing and violence to protect the status quo. The media, as well as political and legal authorities, contributed to a climate of racial hatred and fear by emphasizing the threats posed by integration and civil rights “agitators,” while the criminal justice system excluded black participation and openly served the interests of white supremacy. While these murders today have been portrayed as the work of a few evil men, racial violence in the 1950s and 1960s South was systematic, not sporadic, and there were few consequences for those who terrorized blacks or who helped create the climate that encouraged racial terrorism. That’s why only five of these over a hundred murder cases resulted in any jail time at all for any of the perpetrators at the time.

The violence of the civil rights era offers a powerful example of the ways in which racism was built into institutions, the way it was supported, practiced, and abetted by the state, and the extent to which whites have tolerated violence in order to protect their racial privilege. As such, it can serve to repudiate frequent claims that racial violence is an aberration in the United States, a country that supposedly offers freedom and justice to all. In the common story—and one that recent poll data suggests most white Americans seem to accept—the civil rights movement successfully achieved full equality for blacks, racism no longer exists except as expressed by a handful of extreme individuals, and the legal system is now fair and free of racial bias. This history calls those claims and that understanding of the past into doubt.

Because individuals who have a deeper understanding of the systemic nature of white supremacy and the enormous energy exerted by the state to uphold white privilege are more likely to be political allies in the ongoing struggle against racial inequality, it is vital for Americans to confront this history of intimidation, violence, and domestic terrorism. How people understand and think about history has important political consequences.

Politics  is played out on the terrain of the past. The way the past is remembered affects how contemporary problems are understood and framed. When the chief supporter of Arizona’s new law barring the teaching of ethnic studies in public schools can claim that classes that focus on the experiences of Latinos or African Americans are “just like the Old South,”[1] it suggests to me that we as a people do not understand—or have not been forced to confront—our own history. As we move forward to face the ongoing challenges of inequalities and systemic racism in the contemporary United States, remembering the past and encouraging a critical engagement with that past are vital political projects. The great novelist Milan Kundera once wrote, “The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” That is a struggle that we all must continue.

 Renee Romano is an Associate Professor of History at Oberlin College. She is currently working on a book entitled, Justice Delayed: Civil Rights Trials and America’s Racial Reckoning.

[1] Bishop Desmond Tutu, “Reconciliation in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Experiences of the Truth Commission,” remarks at the Nobel Peace Laureates Conference, University of Virginia, November 5, 1998, available online at, accessed on April 17, 2009.

[2] State trials took place in the cases of the murders of Viola Liuzzo, Jonathan Daniels, James Reeb, Lemuel Penn, Ben Chester White, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till,Vernon Dahmer, and Virgil Ware. In addition, there were four federal trials during this time period (in the Liuzzo, Penn, Dahmer cases, and in the case of the murder of Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner). In one murder case—that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,–there was no trial because the murderer pled guilty.

 [3] Quoted in “The Legacy of Virgil Ware,” Time, September 22, 2003, available online at,9171,1005718,00.html.

 [4] Sherrilyn Ifill, On the Court-House Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007), xix.