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No Justice, No Peace

June 24, 2005

The Mississippi trial of former Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen in the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers amounted to a U.S. version of the truth and justice commissions more commonly associated with nations such as South Africa or El Salvador. It reminded us that this country too is still finding its way out of a shameful past.

As has been the case in other countries, the results were mixed. The verdict -- manslaughter instead of murder -- hardly seemed like the truth, given the planning that went into luring James E. Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael H. Schwerner to their deaths. Prosecutors argued that the now 80-year-old Killen, though not present at the scene, had masterminded the murders, recruiting as many as 18 men to beat and shoot the three young men and organizing disposal of the bodies beneath an earthen dam.

But if the jury delivered only a half-truth, the judge meted out full justice, sentencing Killen on Thursday to the maximum 60 years in prison, 20 each for three lives so cruelly taken.

Behind the concept of truth and justice commissions, by whatever name they're called or route they take, is the belief that refusing to confront a brutal past blocks the path to a peaceful future. Countries that have tried to will their pasts away -- Spain with its refusal to discuss its vicious civil war, Argentina's amnesty for perpetrators of its "dirty war" -- find themselves grappling with ghosts. After all, as Mississippi son William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Thus in the South, site of this country's worst sins, a new generation of prosecutors has reopened cases that justice passed by. Federal officials recently exhumed the body of Emmett Till, whose 1955 murder helped spark the civil rights movement that almost a decade later brought white New Yorkers Schwerner and Goodman to work and die alongside Chaney, a black Mississippian. The two men who admitted to killing the 14-year-old Till but were never convicted have since died. Prosecutors hope to learn who snatched the youngster from the Mississippi house he was visiting.

Do we need to go through this exercise, relearn these bitter lessons? Consider the responses to Tuesday's manslaughter verdict by Schwerner's widow, Rita Bender, and Ben Chaney, who was 11 years old when his older brother was killed.

"The fact that some members of the jury could not bring themselves to acknowledge that these were murders, that they were committed with malice, indicates that there are still people among you that choose to look aside, not to see the truth," said Bender, who is white.

"We'll take what we got," said Chaney, who is black.

If this country promises anything, it is justice for all. That whites and blacks don't share that expectation shows how much work is left to do.

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