Like the fog in Carl Sandburg’s insipid poem, Martin Luther King Day this year seems to have crept up on the nation on little cat feet. We have heard few of the usual neo-conservative slobberings over how they wish they could have marched with King in Selma, nor even many of the usual lamentations of King’s now-decrepit comrades that nobody sufficiently appreciates their accomplishments.
Those noises may yet come, but the real reason we have not heard them so far may be that the festivities arrived a bit early this year, in the arrest of 79-year-old former Klansman Edgar Ray Killen for the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.
The murders of course were notorious at the time and are immortalized by Hollywood in the 1988 anti-white film “Mississippi Burning,” which manages to smear every white man and woman in the state (and by implication everywhere else) by virtually stating that whites are by nature genocidal.
It’s therefore not too surprising that the media reaction to Mr. Killen’s arrest has been one of almost universal gloating. To bust a 79-year-old white Southerner for racial murders is almost as much fun as deporting 80-year-old concentration camp guards to communist countries to stand trial for war crimes, and that amusement has worn thin in recent years. Concentration camp guards have the habit of dying natural deaths eventually, but there’s an endless supply of white Southerners to put on trial closer to home.
But Mr. Killen wasn’t the only unusual suspect to win the interest of the national press last week. The New York Times, after a large story about his arrest and the murders and a long interview with the surviving relatives of the victims, also found space to tell us all about another killer of the same era—one who long ago was tried and convicted and today even acknowledges his guilt. For some reason, he doesn’t elicit quite the same reaction from the Times as Mr. Killen.
The case is that of Wilbert Rideau, who as a 19-year-old black man in 1961 robbed a bank in Lake Charles, Louisiana, kidnapped three white bank employees, and shot all of them near a bayou at the edge of town.
Two survived to tell the tale; the third, a woman, survived only briefly. Rideau polished her off by stabbing her in the heart and slitting her throat.
Like its report about Mr. Killen, the Times story about the Rideau case is full of woe—but not that of Rideau’s white victims. Its sympathies are all for the killer himself.
“All-white, all-male juries” convicted Rideau of murder and sentenced him to death, and they did so three times. Appeals courts threw out the verdicts on the grounds of “misconduct by the government.” We never hear too much about what that means, because the Times reporter, Adam Liptak, is too busy singing about Rideau’s achievements ever since. [With Little Evidence, 4th Trial Opens in '61 Killing, By Adam Liptak, January 11, 2005]
Prosecutors in Louisiana “are trying once again to obtain a conviction that will stick,” he writes, and that may be hard, in part because Rideau has been so “transformed.” (As it turned out it was too hard. A mixed race jury this week found him guilty of mere manslaughter, allowing him to go free after serving more than the maximum sentence for that crime.) “He has, from prison, become an acclaimed journalist and documentary filmmaker,” but, well, it’s Louisiana, you see, and we know what that means.
“The community’s rage lives on in this racially divided oil and gambling town near the Texas border,” and no doubt it’s all those white people, the kind Mississippi Burning warned us about, who keep nice fellows like Rideau in prison. “It’s ferocious, the way we hold on to this episode,” grumbled the Rev. J. L. Franklin, a black pastor who is monitoring the case.
Right, you’d think after 43 years, people would forget a white person being kidnapped, driven to the edge of town, shot and having her throat cut. But it’s those white folks, so full of hate and ignorance, just like over in Mississippi, where they’re probably mad about the prosecution of Mr. Killen after only 41 years.
“Little evidence endures” in the Rideau case, Mr. Liptak informs us, which only adds to the problems of yet another trial. It’s not very clear how much evidence endures in the Killen case either, but that wasn’t quite the point the Times wanted to make, was it?
The Times’ transparent double standard, its lip-smacking glee over the arrest of the white man in Mississippi and its weepy apologies for the black killer in Louisiana, tell us what the real point is.
What Mr. Killen is supposed to have done was not only murder but also an act of political and racial resistance, and that sort of thing has to be stomped on, regardless of how little evidence remains after 41 years.
As for a forgotten white woman in Louisiana who had her throat cut—who cares?