- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2005

I spent much of the summer of 1964 at the public swimming pool near my home in Denver. I turned 17 that year, but my parents thought I was too young to work. So every day, I would walk the dozen or so blocks to Cheesman Park, with my suit and towel and a book to read.

In August that summer I met a Southern boy who struck up a conversation poolside. I don’t remember his name or where exactly he was from, but I do remember his Southern drawl, warm and liquid, and what he taught me about racial attitudes in his part of the country.

I thought about him and our conversations when the verdict came down Tuesday in a murder that took place that same summer of 1964 in Mississippi. Forty-one years to the day when civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were brutally murdered in Philadelphia, Miss., the ringleader in their killings finally received some measure of justice. After two days of deliberations, a Mississippi jury found Edgar Ray Killen, now 80 years old and in failing health, guilty of three counts of manslaughter.

Unlike an all-white jury that had failed to convict Killen in 1965 of separate, federal civil rights charges in the murders, this Mississippi jury was made up of nine whites and three blacks, who voted unanimously to convict. Times have changed in Mississippi — indeed, throughout the South.

The disappearance of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman galvanized the nation that summer. The evening news was filled with stories of “Freedom Summer,” the mass influx of mostly white students from the North into Mississippi to help register disenfranchised blacks. When these three young men — two whites from New York and one black from Mississippi — went missing, their story came to symbolize the violence and race hatred that infected the South.

On Aug. 4, FBI agents discovered their bodies and their torched-out Ford in an earthen dam. They had been beaten, tortured and shot to death on a country road on June 21 by a mob of Klansmen, shortly after local police released the young men who had been stopped for an alleged traffic violation.

Barely two weeks later, the Democratic National Convention met in Atlantic City, N.J., to nominate Lyndon Baines Johnson for president. Now back to my Southern acquaintance.

The young man invited me to a party one day after we had met at the pool. He and a friend picked me up that evening, and we went back to his friend’s parents’ house. There were a lot of adults around, many transfixed in front of a small black-and-white television set in the living room watching the Democratic Convention. I sat beside my new friend as the roll call of delegates proceeded on the screen. The minute one of the delegates pronounced LBJ’s name, my friend muttered viciously under his breath: “[racial epithet]-lover.”

I was stunned. I had only heard that word once before in my life from a boy in fifth grade who had been sent to principal’s office for uttering it. I couldn’t believe my ears. How could my date, who just minutes before had been the image of Southern charm and gentlemanly demeanor, have turned into such a bigot?

“Why do you hate Negroes?” I asked. He looked at me like I was crazy. “You Yankees don’t know anything about it,” he said defensively.

We barely spoke the rest of the evening, and I never saw him again after he dropped me off that night. But I’ve thought about him many times.

I’ve often wondered whether he ever got over his hatred. No doubt he had learned it from his parents, and they from theirs before them. For generations, even many otherwise decent white Southerners learned to despise black people. Their prejudice allowed them to look away when blacks were denied their most basic human rights, and it encouraged the worst of them to engage in unspeakable acts of cruelty and violence.

Edgar Ray Killen, described by friends and family as “a good man,” was one of that generation of Southerners. Thankfully, new generations have replaced the Old South, and Killen’s conviction may help close that chapter of Southern history.

Who knows, my old acquaintance may be one of those New Southerners who applauds this week’s long overdue justice.

Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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