WASHINGTON, D.C. -- I read the other day in The New York Times'
obituary columns of the death of a long-forgotten segregationist figure from
America's civil rights struggle, Lawrence A. Rainey, a disgraced sheriff
from Meridian, Miss.
His death elicited reflections on how far America has come in
the struggle for racial equality since his fleeting notoriety in 1964. A
speech I had heard at the District of Columbia Circuit Courthouse about the
time Rainey was breathing his last made my reflections all the more
poignant. It was made by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I wonder how
Rainey accounted for the rise of Thomas. Conceivably, Rainey's views on
Thomas were similar to the publicly stated views of the Rev. Jesse
Jackson -- another fearful symmetry, that.
Rainey was a rural Southern sheriff implicated in one of the
most contemptible episodes of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the
disappearance and murder of three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman
and Michael Schwerner, both white and from New York City; and James Chaney,
a black from Meridian. On June 21, 1964, they were jailed in Neshoba County,
Miss., on a speeding violation -- a civil rights worker did not have to
drive very fast in those days to get stopped. They were released in the late
afternoon and drove off into the night, never to be seen alive again. Over
the next few weeks, as the nation clamored for news of their whereabouts,
Rainey deprecated the nation's concerns for their safety. With the insolence
of a bully, he claimed "they're just hiding out somewhere and trying to get
a lot of publicity out of it." Anyone familiar with the taunts of Nazis and
communists recognizes the effrontery.
Actually, the three civil rights workers were dead. Their bodies
were discovered in an earthen dam on Aug. 4. In early 1965, Rainey and 17
other men were tried on federal charges. Most likely the civil rights
workers had been murdered hours after leaving Rainey's jail, after his
deputy, Cecil R. Price, handed them over to fellow racists. Of the 17 men
tried for violating the civil rights of the victims, nine were convicted,
including Price and a Klan leader. Rainey was acquitted, but history was
moving fast in the 1960s. He never got another job in Mississippi law
enforcement and spent the rest of his days as a security guard in a
supermarket and at a shopping mall.
For 37 years, Rainey and racists like him have been watching
their segregationist vision of the world evanesce as blacks have moved up
into the middle class and on to some of the highest positions in American
life. Like the retired Soviet apparatchiks in Russia, they rattle around in
their retirement believing that the world has taken a dreadful turn down a
dark road. I read an interview some years ago with a retired Soviet
pooh-bah. He still believed: Kapitalism doomed, Democracy a sham. Doubtless
in the dank holes where the racists of yesteryear brood, many still believe
a colorblind society is a Gomorrah.
Then there is Thomas, to give them a migraine. I heard him speak
the other day at the portrait unveiling for Judge Lawrence Silberman. There
were other speakers, all very distinguished and eloquent; but none spoke so
eloquently and learnedly as this black justice, who had been raised in
poverty in Sheriff Rainey's rural South. Contrary to his detractors he has a
first-rate mind, a fine sense of the law and character of the finest mettle.
He thinks for himself. At Yale Law School, his thoughts followed a radical
course. As life went on, he adopted conservative principles. For exercising
his freedom of thought, he has been abominated by the career civil rights
mountebanks. Their tireless public contempt for him has made his life a
Listening to him the other day at the courthouse, it occurred to
me that he is too sensitive a man not to be wounded by their slanders, but
he remains cheerful and unbowed. His laugh is one of the most musical
instruments in Washington. I know of no better-rounded man than Thomas.
America is moving toward the colorblind free society that Martin
Luther King Jr. envisaged, and Sheriff Rainey execrated. Jesse Jackson
denounces black conservatives for arriving at positions that blacks are not
supposed to take. Like the segregationists of yore, Jackson apparently
believes that blacks should "know their place." The higher they climb in
American life, the more the career civil rights mountebanks will make them
suffer. Jackson is not as evil a man as Rainey, but he is not a very good
man -- and it is increasingly apparent that he is not a friend of civil
rights. Clarence Thomas is.