Unsettled Histories: Civil Rights Lessons from Jena and Beyond

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Contemporary upheaval in Jena, Louisiana and ongoing prosecutions of Civil Rights-era murders illuminate the still unsettled and volatile nature of American history and contemporary race relations.  Law professor Margaret Burnham and legal investigator Terry Davis will discuss, with moderator and civil rights activist Marty Nathan, the impact of ongoing prosecutions in Louisiana and in Mississippi and consider together the implications that these events have on race relations, the justice system, and civil rights activism.

In fall 2007, tensions erupted at the high school in Jena, Louisiana, a small town of less than 3,000, following a set of racially charged interactions that included the intimidatory use of nooses and highlighted the intensity of ongoing racial segregation in America. The events, which culminated in second-degree attempted murder charges being brought against six young men, known now as the Jena Six, implicated in an assault on a white student at the school, have prompted national calls for racial unity and for examinations of racially-biased legal proceedings.  Some 20,000 Americans converged on Jena in September 2007 to participate in a civil rights march to protest the treatment and the harsh charges against them, and to offer their support to the Jena Six and their families.

The Jena Six have seen some charges reduced but all face considerable prison time while the students involved in hanging nooses under a tree traditionally frequented by white students received short school suspensions. Terry Davis went to Jena, Louisiana to conduct investigative work on behalf of Mychal Bell, a student and member of the Jena 6. She spent six weeks in Louisiana performing pro bono criminal investigative work, interviewed countless witnesses to the events in Jena, and was there when thousands converged in September 2007 to highlight the need for justice, solidarity, and unity in and beyond Jena.

The incidents in Jena prompted President Bush to address the ongoing use of the inflammatory symbol that resurrects the practice of lynching in America and the entrenched prejudice that fueled practices of violence and intimidation.  “As a civil society,” the president observed, “we must understand that noose displays and lynching jokes are deeply offensive.  They are wrong.  And they have no place in America today.” Since the events in Jena transpired, at least seventy incidents involving nooses have occurred, and federal officials with the Equal Employment Opportunity commission assert that cases of racial harassment filed with their offices increased almost 25% last year, from 5,646 cases in 2006 to 6,977 cases in 2007.

In the same year that the events in Jena were unfolding, a civil right-era case from the 1960s was being tried in the Mississippi courts. Margaret Burnham has documented that 2007 trial which focused on two of the five murders that occurred in 1964 on the eve of the Mississippi Freedom Summer.  In what Ms. Burnham has deemed as “the scene of what may turn out to be one of the most significant criminal civil rights trials in decades,” 71-year old reputed Klansman James Seale was charged with the deaths of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Moore, both of whom were nineteen years old when they were kidnapped by a group of Klansmen, beaten and then, while still alive, tied with chains to weighty engine parts and railroad ties before being thrown into the Mississippi River to drown.  The bodies of Dee and Moore were found during the highly publicized search for Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights workers killed by Klansmen in the summer of 1964.  Despite repeated vigorous calls for justice by their families, concerned Americans, and civil rights organizations, none of the killers were tried and convicted until Seale’s 2007 trial when he was sentenced to three life terms for his role in the 1964 murders.

Scholars and activists assert that the civil rights murders that plagued the South during the 1960s intensify prevailing histories of the era that also saw murders and assassinations of national leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers, as well as other young men like Emmett Till.  The efforts of politicians like Senators Chris Dodd and Jim Talent, who in 2005 proposed that the Justice Department create an investigative unit to focus on unsolved civil-rights murders, reflect the potential for emancipatory and illuminating justice, as well as the unabating need for the nation to bear witness to one of the most wrenching eras in American history.

Event Details
Wednesday, March 26
Time: 7:30 PM
Speakers: Margaret Burnham, Terry Davis, and Marty Nathan
Place: Gamble Auditorium, Art Building, Mount Holyoke College
Admission: Free and open to the public.