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.
This is a consistent theme for Marlette, whose family, like Forrest Gump, often seems to be present in the cross hairs of history. His previous (and first) novel, "The Bridge," concerned the Carolina mill strikes during which his own grandmother was bayoneted by National Guardsmen. Speaking recently at a meeting of the Southeastern Independent Booksellers Alliance, Marlette remarked on his family's "Gumpian" obliviousness to the significance of their roles in major historical events.
That obliviousness speaks to us all. We hear the news and read the headlines and somehow it all seems to be happening to someone else, says Marlette. That sense of history in the everyday, and that what we do matters, is what he captures in his un-put-downable novel. It's also what begs our attention now.
Marlette is especially riveted by the "Good German phenomenon" -- how good people can avert their gaze from horror. How did decent people look the other way when Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, young men in their 20s, were savagely beaten and shot to death?
We don't have to ask what the terrorists will do. We've seen their work and witnessed their zeal. The religious fanatics who wage war against the West are no less certain of their cause than were the Ku Klux Klaners who bombed black churches and believed that the Jews were destroying their civilization.
It seems that every generation is doomed to test itself or be tested, and evil is ever resourceful. The trick is recognizing evil for what it is, and having the courage to face it down.
Southern white Christians abdicated their moral responsibility and demonstrated their cowardice and complicity by allowing Klansmen to hijack their religion and terrorize blacks in the name of their Jesus. If Muslims want theirs to be taken seriously as the religion of peace they claim it to be, they will have to marginalize and condemn those they insist have hijacked their religion.
Otherwise history will judge them as we have judged our own. In the final analysis, good people do not turn away.