Mississippians are fond of quoting their state’s native son, William Faulkner, who said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

I’ve quoted Faulkner myself, and I’m not a Mississippian. Recent events there have got me reconsidering Faulkner’s quote. In June, Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen, the main conspirator in one of the most notorious killings of the Civil Rights era, was convicted on three counts of manslaughter in the deaths of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The verdict came 41 years to the day after the men’s disappearance in 1964. Two days after the conviction, Killen was sentenced to 60 years in prison — a life sentence for the 80-year-old man.

Killen’s fate proves the limits of Faulkner’s observation: The past is dying in Philadelphia.

I speak as a black woman raised in Tennessee. I came of age during the Civil Rights struggle. I was only nine when Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner disappeared, but I remember it vividly. The case stunned the nation. The men disappeared in June, and their bodies were found 44 days later, in August.  Even then, it took a tip from an informant to lead the FBI to their graves. The agents brought in bulldozers; the men had been buried under tons of earth.

The trio wasn’t killed in Philadelphia, but they had been charged with speeding and were detained in the county jail while their murderers plotted their deaths. Thus, this southern city of brotherly love wore a scar that thickened over four decades. The town’s very name invoked black people’s worst fears about the racist South.

In 1989, working for a Mississippi newspaper that had sent me to Philadelphia, I heard that fear in my relatives’ voices. I spent two months living in the black community there, and wrote about race relations 25 years after the murder. The past was alive and well in that little town. There, the complexities of racial segregation lingered in ways that seemed unfathomable to an outsider. The high school had private baccalaureate ceremonies: one for the black students and another for the white ones. Blacks didn’t shop much at the drugstore in the center of the city, and they certainly didn’t sit down to have a cup of coffee or a cold drink. The drugstore had been off limits to blacks during the Jim Crow era, and that prohibition, though illegal, remained in force. The one theater in town still reserved the downstairs seats for whites and the upstairs for blacks.

That was the Philadelphia the world saw this summer; it was a vision that framed the stories I read about Killen’s trial. It was a view of a hopeless place that would never change.

There was, however, another Philadelphia — one of small-town pleasantries and relationships. Even though I was an outsider (and worse, a reporter), the suspicions and hostilities eased somewhat. People began to talk. Over and over, I heard black and white Philadelphians insist that their home was more than the place where the infamous murder was hatched. They were tired, and they were ready to lay their burden down.

But how?

Burying the past is a long journey that begins with a single step. Philadelphia took that step in June of 1989, when a committee held a commemoration of the Civil Rights workers deaths. The ceremony included a speech from Richard Molpus, a Neshoba County native and Mississippi’s Secretary of State, admitting that the city and state bore responsibility for the killings. Just last year, at the 40th anniversary of the murders, Molpus pleaded for informants to come forward. “I’m speaking primarily to the white community now,” he said, noting that as many as 20 co-conspirators were believed to have participated in the murder. He continued: “Someone told me the other day, they have already had their judgment day. Others, however, have told wives, children and buddies of their involvement. There are witnesses among us who can share information with prosecutors. Other murderers are aged and infirm and may want to be at peace with themselves and with God before their own death. They need to be encouraged to come forward. They need to know that now is the time to liberate those dark secrets.”

Now, with Killen’s conviction and sentence, the city has taken a giant step. Is its journey over?  I don’t think so, and neither does Molpus. “The end of this saga should not be about only cowardly racists finally brought to justice,” he said last year. “The final chapter should be about redemption and yes, those famous words we hear about moving on … moving on to a better life.”

Even though he was addressing Philadelphians, his words speak to the nation. The racial divide is embedded in our society. Philadelphia belongs to all of us, even though the town has symbolized an aspect of American life that many of us would rather ignore. I’m convinced that they are showing us the way through the pain, anger and shame that accompanies race relations in our country.

Faulkner warns us that we can’t leave the past behind. Philadelphia proves that we can put it to rest.

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