In the same week that our president was spewing some of his worst racist comments, Edgar Ray Killen drew his last breath at the state penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi. Killen is the notorious klansman behind the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. He was not convicted for the brutal crimes until more than 40 years after the fact, and even then he was only declared guilty of manslaughter. He spent about a dozen years in jail for his role in the death of three young men.
Killen, a country preacher, was 93 when he died, and he lived most of his life in absolute freedom. The men he killed—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—were barely in their twenties when they were pulled over by a local sheriff’s deputy, driven into the woods, shot to death, and buried in a shallow grave. They barely got a chance to live at all.
When Killen went before the court in 2005 he was an elderly man in a wheelchair. Some people argued he was too old and sick to withstand incarceration. Others simply thought the past ought to be forgotten. It wasn’t fair, some said, to hold a man accountable for something that happened so long ago. They felt the same way about Byron De La Beckwith, the Mississippi man who killed the civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Beckwith was finally convicted more than 30 years after his crime. He served just seven years in jail before dying at the age of 80. When Mississippi was looking to retry Beckwith, a friend said to me: “They should leave that old man alone.” She said putting a sick, old man in jail wouldn’t bring anyone back to life. Of course she was right about that, but resurrection is not the goal of justice.
And now we have a president who rode to the White House on inflammatory lies about the citizenship of our first black president, who launched his campaign with a slur about Mexican immigrants, who insisted there were some “good people” among the self-professed neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, and who called African countries “shitholes.” Yes, he’s an old man, but that’s no excuse. It’s no excuse when it’s your grandfather ranting about those people at Christmas dinner and it surely is not an excuse when it’s the president of the United States at an immigration meeting.
Just a week ago we were debating whether the president was mentally stable. Now we’re debating whether he is racist. I cannot speak to the first debate. I’m not qualified to judge whether someone is mentally ill. But as to the second debate, there is none. The president is undeniably a racist. His entire adult life has been littered with ugly comments and even uglier actions based on the color of people’s skin. That he is an old man who occasionally befriended or hired people of color, doesn’t absolve him from his racism. He is a racist as surely as Edgar Ray Killen and Byron De La Beckwith were murderers.
Any person who defends the president or tries to pretend his remarks aren’t racially charged, is also a racist. This is clear and unequivocal. Fortunately, if I’ve learned one thing from growing up in Mississippi, it’s that we can do the right thing today even if we did the wrong thing in the past. It is never too late to seek justice. It is never too late to try and clean up the mess we created. Our president and the people defending him are a disgraceful mess. I hope most of them are brought low well before the next election cycle. But if they are not, we must do the right thing and send them all home. It’s not too late and they are not too old to be punished.