When a news item crossed my desk a few days ago noting the 39th anniversary of the federal verdicts in the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, I happened to be reading a novel about the same period.
I was reminded that the killers essentially got away with murder. Seven men were convicted on federal charges of conspiracy to deny civil rights, but none served more than six years. That travesty of justice, combined with insight that only fiction can reveal, prompted one of those rare moments of lucidity when one sees clearly what was -- and what needs to be.
The novel is Doug Marlette's "Magic Time," published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The story is about a newspaper columnist, Carter Ransom, who is drawn from his present-day job in New York City -- where a terrorist bomb has just destroyed an art museum -- to his Southern past in Mississippi during the civil rights era.
Visiting history through Ransom's eyes, we see the affinity between those who murdered civil rights workers and those who blow up art museums. Or fly airplanes into buildings. Both are fueled by resentment and nihilism; both wrap themselves in a mantle of religion.
Same story, different sheets.
It so happens that Marlette, who is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, spent part of his childhood in Laurel, Miss. He went to school with the children of those charged with killing Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. Marlette's own father, a Marine Corps lifer, was among those sent looking for the missing civil rights workers.
When Marlette saw the planes hit the World Trade Center five years ago, he says his first association was to the "bitter, resentful, powerless religious fanatics of the American South" who waged war on the civil rights movement of his youth.
When he saw the scenes of Muslims celebrating in the streets after almost 3,000 people were murdered on American soil, his mind flashed to when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and his Mississippi classroom erupted in cheers. He remembered hearing elected officials make snide jokes about Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.
Those associations inspired his novel. Marlette says he wanted to examine what effect the big moral issues have on people, how their lives are transformed, how they respond and how they live the rest of their lives.
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