League of the South Remembers the ‘Good Old Days’

To hear the ideologues of the neo-Confederate movement tell it, the Deep South of the 1950s and 1960s was a marvelous place indeed. Little wonder, then, that it so fiercely resisted giving voting rights to blacks, desegregating the schools and dismantling Jim Crow laws.

The "good people" of the South, writes William Cawthon, a founding member of the League of the South (LOS), wished merely to preserve "the high standards that their society had thus far achieved."

Alabama Gov. George Wallace, Cawthon enthuses, "in his first inaugural in 1963 spoke the noble words: 'Let us rise to the call of the freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny... ."

What Cawthon doesn't quote tells it all.

The very next words Wallace spoke, a world-famous phrase that does not find its way into Cawthon's rosy portrait, were these: "... and I say, 'Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.' "

As LOS President Michael Hill put it with a little more bluntness in his own writings, Wallace "stood foursquare against the Yankee-imposed ideology of egalitarianism," a lonely but noble stalwart who put himself "between us and absorption into the pagan global village."

Hill, Cawthon and a host of other neo-Confederates engaged in rewriting the history of the South omit more than just a phrase or two. Virtually unmentioned in their writings, their speeches and their other political activities are the realities of the era that saw the struggle for civil rights in the American South — the violent, often ghastly, campaign of terror conducted by men spurred on by Wallace and his ilk, a repression that left scores of men, women and children dead.

'A Lot of Little Nuremburgs'
Much has been said and written about the reopening of murder cases from the civil rights era in the South — a reexamination that since 1989 has included new probes of a total of 18 killings in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The trend reflects the appearance of a new generation of Southern prosecutors, a new willingness on the part of white jurors to convict, the recently wakened consciences of long-silent witnesses. It underscores the notion that justice, even if long delayed, should never be denied.

But it also serves as a hair-raising reminder of what the South was really like in the days that Hill and his ilk remember so fondly.

"There is a sort of 'Happy Days' version of Southern history that is being presented," says Brooks Simpson, an Arizona State University Civil War historian (see White Lies). "Clearly, these were not happy days in any way."

Boys were mutilated for looking the wrong way at white women. Black men were forced to jump off bridges, fire-bombed for trying to register voters, shot dead as a lure to attract civil rights leaders — with the thought that then they, too, could be slain.

White preachers, students, reporters and even a housewife were murdered for trying to help spread voting rights to blacks. And tens of thousands of others were terrorized into silence, browbeaten by the Klan and its uptown allies in a bid to maintain the "high standards" of Southern culture to which Cawthon, Hill and many of their neo-Confederate friends would like to return.

Now, with the reopening of so many cases — so far, there have been a dozen arrests, six convictions, one acquittal and one mistrial — the spotlight is once again on the "high standards" of the "good people" of the civil rights era South. To more than one expert, there is a comparison to be made to Nazi war crimes.

The new prosecutions represent "a lot of little Nurembergs," says David Halberstam, a leading historian of the civil rights movement. "This handful of cases were sort of legalized murders because no jury was ever going to convict anybody. The facts were known, but there was an inability to get a conviction."

Despite the nostalgia of the Michael Hills of the world, the South has changed — convictions are clearly now possible. And, say many less one-sided lovers of the South, they are just as clearly needed. "It's not just digging up old dirt," says David Sansing, professor emeritus of history at the University of Mississippi. "It's finishing that unfinished business.

"I don't know if it's good for our image. But I think it's good for our soul."

Murder, Lies and Official Complicity
With that in mind, the Intelligence Report set out to detail some of the cases that have been or are being reinvestigated. These stories — fleshed out with a series of interviews and other reporting across the South — are presented as an antidote to the toxic historical revisionism of the modern neo-Confederate movement.

Of the 40 killings listed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., only two resulted in first-degree murder convictions in the 1960s — the killings of Vernon Dahmer in 1966 and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Families of five other victims obtained some justice with federal conspiracy convictions, but in those cases murder indictments were never brought.

The numbers remained unchanged until the 1970s, when Alabama Atty. Gen. Bill Baxley decided such crimes of the past shouldn't go unpunished.

Baxley pursued the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church — the infamous Sunday attack that left four little black girls dead and horrified the world.

He prosecuted white supremacist J.B. Stoner for the unrelated 1958 bombing of a Birmingham church. And he tried to resurrect the 1957 case against the killers of Willie Edwards Jr., who was forced to jump off an Alabama River bridge in Montgomery after being mistaken for another black man who was supposedly seeing a white woman.

Baxley experienced partial success. Stoner went to prison. A judge in the Edwards case tossed out the indictments against the accused. In 1977, a jury convicted Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss in the killings of the four little girls. Chambliss would die while serving a prison sentence eight years later.

Baxley left office before he could pursue other suspects in the church bombing. His successors never bothered to follow his lead.

Once again, the unsolved cases languished.

Then a small event inspired a single prosecutor. In 1989, The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., printed leaked documents from a now-defunct segregationist spy agency known as the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which was then headed by the governor.

Those documents showed that at the same time the state was prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith for the June 12, 1963, murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, the state-funded Sovereignty Commission was secretly assisting Beckwith's defense, seeking to acquit him.

Revelation of the state's secret assistance to Beckwith in his April 1964 trial prompted widow Myrlie Evers-Williams to seek justice. Then-prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter of Jackson, Miss., listened and began to explore whether Beckwith could be reprosecuted.

New witnesses came forward, and before 1990 ended, Beckwith was indicted for Evers' murder. Four years later, a jury convicted him in the same courtroom where he had been tried 30 years earlier.