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The American Civil Rights Movement, A Call to Halt Its Vengeance

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Message Michael Leon
Madison, Wisconsin—Some summers back, a busload of activists left the University of Wisconsin at Madison campus on a trip south to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Riders of the 1960's civil rights movement, a group of people drawn to justice and non-violence.

Among the stops were locales etched into the liberal American consciousness such as Selma and Birmingham, Alabama and Oxford, Mississippi, all sites of deadly racist violence.

Unlike in the 1960's, murder and cracked skulls did not await these bus riders traveling to the sunnier new south, a racial climate that is an incomplete monument to civil rights workers.

What these modern freedom riders did meet is a climate of obsession of the civil rights movement to seek vengeance against racist killers, the "... American expiation drama ... of last-chance prosecutions of old civil rights crimes" (New York Times, July 29, 2001).

The expiation drama lives on.

Last month, the “
Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act” was passed by the U.S. House.

The act “would authorize up to $13.5 million a year in new federal spending for investigations into ‘cold case’ killings like that of Till, a black teenager who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after supposedly whistling at a white woman,” as noted by
David J. Garrow, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But I see in this effort of today's civil rights movement a saddened grim reaper—doggedly, even fanatically, chasing racists, seeking their incarceration for the decades-old despicable acts of deadly violence.

After the conviction in 1994 of Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of NAACP field director Medgar Evers, a national television news broadcast showed Myrlie Evers-Williams in seeming ecstasy, as she "broke into a smile, shouted a cheer and raised a clenched fist to the sky in triumph," as the New York Times reported.

I watched Evers-Williams, who had long campaigned for the Beckwith prosecution, live on CNN on that day in 1994. I remember thinking, frankly: "What is she so happy about? Now, the 73 year-old racist, murdering man of her husband can spend the rest of his life in an American prison."

In 2001, a jury convicted 62-year-old former Klansman Thomas Blanton, co-conspirator in the infamous 1963 Birmingham church bombing, of murdering four children.

Other prosecutions and convictions of murdering racists continue with the approval of today's civil rights establishment whose apparent sentiment is that the killers be "brought to justice".

What ludicrous conception of justice is being subscribed to? Not the ideal of justice that animated the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Dissent from this liberty-destroying campaign of retribution is absent in the mass media.

Lest this gauntlet thrown at the feet of the civil rights movement be mistaken for a David Horowitz-type sop to the right-wing, avowed enemies of civil rights, let the reader regard this challenge as issued from the pacifist-inclined left.

In a younger day, I idealized the American civil rights movement of the 1960's.

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Michael Leon is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. His writing has appeared nationally in The Progressive, In These Times, and CounterPunch. He can be reached at
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