I suddenly started crying the other day when I was driving from Jackson to Neshoba County. I rather surprised myself; it was a glorious day, the mildest Mississippi day in months. I was driving north on Hwy. 25 with the top down, singing Earth, Wind and Fire at the top of my lungs. I had just passed a number of political campaign signs for US Reps. Ronnie Shows and Chip Pickering, now fighting an ugly battle for the same seat. One reality led to another: I suddenly remembered I was going to a Ku Klux Klan march in my hometown.
Emotion overwhelmed me: How dare the ignorant Klan rednecks come back to my county. Hadn't the town been held hostage to its past long enough? Who would show up? Would there be trouble? Violence, even? I'd interviewed white supremacists and covered hate events around the country, but never had I been filled with this kind of dread. In fact, I was usually on comfortable ground. In New York City a couple years back, Mayor Giuliani forced the Klan to leave off their masks - - which I thought violated the hatemongers' free speech - - and the bedraggled handful of dolts were outnumbered by thousands of angry New Yorkers of all races and backgrounds. It was a proud moment when I saw the Ku Klux running desperately into a police van, their robes crumpled in their hands, the local ACLU director running with them. The Klan didn't score many points that day in Manhattan.
But this time, the Klan was coming back to my hometown, the place where their uncles and fathers had killed three young men in 1964, where they had recruited from my ignorant and uneducated neighbors to do their dirty work. They were returning to the town that has never prosecuted the three men's murderers, an area where several of the conspirators still live and attend church and shop at Wal-Mart. They were bringing their brand of evil to the court square where they ruled 40 years ago, intimidating blacks who tried to vote or speak up. Perhaps now they'd gather in front of a new generation of confused, angry kids who wear t-shirts with Confederate flag designs sold by Southern heritage clothing makers. Young people in need of a scapegoat as the economy worsens and their opportunities shrink. What seeds would the Klan plant today?
When the tears passed, I still had about 40 miles to go. I started thinking about the concept of "evil" -- that word that is so easily tossed around by the current presidential administration. "Axis of evil." "Evil-doers." It seems like about every time you see George W. Bush or Ari Fleischer on TV, they are talking about "evil" that we must unilaterally root out, replace, assassinate, regime-change. Evil is bad, evil must be punished. But, whose evil?
Yes, we all felt the pain of evil as we watched the World Trade Centers fall. Unexpectedly. Our planes. Innocent people. Anger. Revenge. But the administration's -- and, by extension, our country's -- pursuit of evil, like white-shirted cowboys chasing savage Indians in old Westerns, has become a farce. We're asked to suspend our reasoning to line up behind an effort to root out "evil" in a part of the world that happens to have rich oil reserves that we want. When we can't catch one evil dude we created, we turn our attention to another one. Meantime, there's plenty of evil to go around right here at home.
Just yesterday I was reading about the trial of white lawmen in Pennsylvania who may have helped kill, and cut nearly in half, a black woman during a race riot in 1969, a trial it took 33 years to have. Birmingham just this year convicted one of the men who conspired to bomb a black church in 1963, blowing five little black girls to bits. My hometown still hasn't seriously tried to convict the 1964 conspirators; the man everyone pretty much knows planned it all -- then a Klan "kleagle" -- still lives right there in the county, even employing black people.
Meantime, this administration's party gets outraged if you even try to mention our own country's evil, our own history of terrorism. It was outrageous that the NAACP ran ads in 2000 reminding the country of the evil slaying of James Byrd in Texas, who was dragged behind a pickup by young American boys until his head detached from his body. (Now every politician in Washington, it seems, is using Sept. 11 as a political weapon.) The Bushies want to install judges with the terrifying values of John Ashcroft. Our country walked out of an international tribunal on racism. And don't dare say the word "reparations" too loudly. This country doesn't care to admit its own acts of evil.
When I got to Neshoba County, I quickly drove to the court square past old trees and buildings as familiar to me as my own voice. I've been filled with ambivalence about my home my entire life. This is where I learned to love and feel compassion, and the place that taught me the meaning of evil, a town where too many people have accepted that evil can live among them. A place where they don't talk much about history. It seems less painful to just try to forget and move forward.
The march started at the old jail, a tiny building just north of the court square where Jim Chaney, Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner had their last meal June 21, 1964 -- a day that would indelibly mark my town's spot on the world map. Only three klansmen showed up, or klanspeople, I should say. One wore a white robe, another black, another purple ("because we liked the color," spokeswoman Kristy would say afterward). One carried a huge Confederate battle flag. They had little Mississippi state flags - - the one the state's voters approved 2-to-1 last year -- sewn to the shoulders of their robes.
Tightly surrounded by police officers -- there were four times more black officers than marchers -- the gang moved south past the old Masonic temple where the Klan first met in the town in the 1920s. The mayor had told townsfolk the week before to "stay home and watch football." But some curious onlookers had gathered, although not many, thankfully. One white woman walked away twirling her finger in a whoop-de-do motion. Others shook their heads with amusement. A couple of black people held up signs telling them to go home to whatever other Mississippi town they sprang from.
A couple blocks later, the group emerged at their SUV, parked on a grassy lot near the town's old jail. Still surrounded by cops -- most of whom seemed bored, but tense -- a portly Kristy burst from her robe wearing a skimpy rebel-flag muscle shirt. She told a handful of self-conscious onlookers that they weren't about hate, they weren't the old Klan, they had kicked out some guys who wanted to commit violence. They weren't racist; they just want separation. They gave out a petition assembled, apparently, by the American Family Association supporting the "under God" part of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Later, I talked to police officials who track white supremacists in the South. Their ranks are swelling, they told me, since Sept. 11. "You might think we'd all come together under one flag, but that's not what's happening," one said. While the US is over rooting evil out of the Fertile Crescent, it seems American-style evil-doers are trying to gestate in our own back yard. But at least it's our evil.
Donna Ladd is editor of the new Jackson Free Press (www.jacksonfreepress.com) in Jackson, Miss.