Klan conviction stirs up memories

Posted: Jun 27, 2005 12:00 AM
The conviction and sentencing this week of ex-Klansman Edgar Ray Killen in the murder of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 brings a rush of memories from a different America.

We suffered our own brand of terrorism then, with our own breed of men who, like today's terrorists, somehow concluded that God entrusted them with His plan and put them unilaterally in charge of His justice.

The young civil rights workers, in their early twenties, one black and two white, were in Mississippi for a black voter registration campaign. They were murdered by Killen's Klan crusaders. Chaney, the young black man, was beaten to death. The two white men, Goodman and Schwerner, were shot.

It took the FBI weeks to uncover the hidden bodies.

Ironically, as the jury was deliberating on the Killen case in Mississippi, a product of the black South of that time, now our Secretary of State, was delivering a major speech in Cairo, Egypt, articulating the Bush administration's vision for advancing freedom and democracy around the world.

In response to a question after the speech, Condoleeza Rice recalled a view espoused in the Birmingham, Ala., of her childhood, that blacks didn't really want or need the type of freedoms that whites enjoyed.

Recalling the violent and sordid past that defines African American history presents a particular challenge for black conservatism.

Conservatism is, after all, defined by conserving and preserving a past and a tradition. The African American experience is defined by escaping an unpleasant past and the struggle toward a better future. Of course, individuals have fond personal memories. But as a people, African Americans have no golden era that we long to recapture.

As Jefferson drafted the lofty language defining our national ideals in the Declaration of Independence, his black slaves tended his estate in Monticello. The U.S. Constitution, whose original intent conservatives want to recapture and preserve, originally intended for blacks to be property. I am unaware of any African Americans who fondly dream of recapturing this state of affairs.

So is conservatism an unnatural and perhaps even impossible home for blacks? Are black conservatives really, as black liberals regularly claim, simply sellouts to "The Man," the white establishment?

Quite the contrary.

Black conservatism, as all conservatism, embodies two vital elements. The first element is the ideals defining the movement. The second element is the maintenance of an ongoing historical perspective through which we may relate to those ideals.

Regarding ideals, we cannot lose perspective that we are all works in progress. History did not end in 1776 or in 1789, but rather, for Americans, including black Americans, these were starting points.

When Jefferson penned, "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal," he defined an eternal ideal for which we strive, including that for the slave owner who wrote the very words.

Conservatism, including black conservatism, conserves the timeless moral truths and ideals in which this nation is rooted and toward which we must strive every day. It may have taken 41 years to convict Edgar Ray Killen. But this week justice was done.

Two of the three civil rights workers that were murdered were white. They understood that the ideals for which they fought, and for which they ultimately died, are both timeless and true for everyone, of every background and history.

The second vital element is historical perspective.

The great accomplishment of the civil rights movement under Dr. King's leadership was means as well as ends. His insistence and success in leading a movement defined by Christian principles and non-violence is an achievement as great as what the movement accomplished. It is no small challenge, in the midst of suffering, to focus on moral ideals rather than hate and violence. But such perspective is vital.

It has been a challenge for African Americans to look at their own history, and all too often, at their own personal experience, and not see our country in negative terms. It is this rocky road that has defined the black experience in America that continues to feed negatively into black feelings and emotions.

However, blacks must remember that all suffering comes to uniquely show us that part of the world for which we are responsible for fixing.

Adversity must raise us up. We cannot be locked in the past, nor can we forget our history.

By insisting that timeless moral principles be the lens through which African Americans relate both to our past and to our future, black conservatism delivers the means through which blacks can provide leadership toward a freer, more just, and more prosperous future for ourselves and all Americans.