- Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders by Renee C. Romano
Recently, the deaths of black men and women while in police custody and the subsequent rise of the indelible “#blacklivesmatter” hashtag campaign have reignited a fierce national discussion over the way that civic authorities and the American justice system treat African Americans and those responsible for committing acts of violence against them. As many have noted, such events are informed by a long history of fraught interactions, particularly in the South. The need for a better understanding of this history of the intersection of civil rights and justice is at the heart of Renee Romano’s Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders. While Romano’s immediate focus is the series of very public trials concerning violent crimes committed during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, her conclusions are much broader, suggesting how the trials (and the public response to those trials) detail a “dramatic evolution in the operation of race in American society” from overt segregation and inequality to a more subtle denial of the power of race via claims of “colorblindness” and justice (2–3).
Racial Reckoning draws from eight prominent civil rights cases tried in the 1990s and 2000s. Romano chose the best known cases, ones that proceeded the furthest through the legal system and which ultimately underline the larger themes that inform her understanding of contemporary discussions of race and civil rights. Several of the cases will be familiar to readers, including trials concerning the murder of Medgar Evers and the murders of the Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteers. While most of the trials took place in Mississippi, Alabama historians will note the inclusion of the trial of Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry (for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church) and the trial of James Fowler (for the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson). In each case, Romano argues that the lead-up to the trial, the trial itself, and the interpretation of the trial to the general public worked to present a specific, sanitized narrative of civil rights justice and redemption that masked the ongoing problems facing African Americans in the search for true equality.
Romano situates her analysis with an extended discussion of the way that the legal system and criminal justice system operated in the South [End Page 378] during the early and mid-twentieth century. African Americans who challenged segregation were subject to violence, perpetrated by individuals whose actions were encouraged by the general population and local and state authorities, and whose actions were excused by the southern legal system. Romano uses the example of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing of 1963, in which the perpetrators were reluctantly prosecuted and eventually received only fines and lesser, suspended sentences as punishment. In the years immediately following the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965), little effort was made to punish those guilty of using criminal action to maintain racial inequality; in fact, Romano suggests that Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley’s ultimately successful prosecution of Bob Chambliss in 1977 for the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing was a “one-man crusade,” an anomaly that does not represent the later movement to prosecute those who committed violence (74–76).
In the 1990s, growing public discomfort over the legally sanctioned violence of the Civil Rights movement and a stronger black political presence combined to draw renewed attention to unprosecuted murders from the era. The wave of trials that Romano traces into the early 2000s brought together three distinct groups interested in revisiting the decades-old crimes: activists who found a more responsive environment for seeking justice, journalists who began to refocus public attention on civil rights “cold cases,” and politicians who wanted to demonstrate that the South “could move on” from the government-sanctioned violence of the past (102). By and large, the cases became media events, opportunities to frame and reframe the discussion of the Civil Rights movement as culminating...