Few whites who violently resisted the civil rights struggle were charged with crimes in the 1950s and 1960s. But the tide of a long-deferred justice began to change in 1994, when a Mississippi jury convicted Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers. Since then, more than one hundred murder cases have been reopened, resulting in more than a dozen trials. But how much did these public trials contribute to a public reckoning with America’s racist past? Racial Reckoning investigates that question, along with the political pressures and cultural forces that compelled the legal system to revisit these decades-old crimes.
Renee C. Romano brings readers into the courthouse for the trials of the civil rights era’s most infamous killings, including the Birmingham church bombing and the triple murder of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner. The activists who succeeded in reopening these cases hoped that bringing those responsible to justice would serve to highlight the state-sanctioned racism that had condoned the killings and the lingering effects of racial violence. Courtroom procedures, however, worked against a deeper exploration of the state’s complicity in murder or a full accounting of racial injustices, past or present. Yet the media and a new generation of white southerners—a different breed from the dying Klansmen on trial—saw the convictions as proof of the politically rehabilitated South and stamped “case closed” on America’s legacy of violent racism. Romano shows why addressing the nation’s troubled racial past will require more than legal justice.
"Romano has done crucial work in Racial Reckoning analyzing the tormented history and contemporary politics of southern justice and historical memory."—Jeanne Theoharis, Journal of American History
"The historical significance of modern civil rights murder cases, often portrayed in films like the 1988 Mississippi Burning, have only begun to receive more scholarly atten- tion in recent years. Renee C. Romano’s timely and sig- nificant work, Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders, is an important contribution to this growing literature. In a cogently argued and captivating account of the prosecution of high-profile civil rights cases that were reopened during the late twentieth cen- tury, Romano argues, “trials became a key site of contes- tation between those who wanted to harness them to the project of declaring and celebrating the end of racism in a ‘postracial’ nation and those who saw in them the po- tential to challenge the denial of the significance of race that was at the foundation of the new racial order”
Chanelle Rose, American Historical Review
"Racial Reckoning is a timely and striking commentary on the legacy of the Civil Rights movement. Renee Romano suggests that the southern legal system (and to an extent, the American justice system) embraced superficial symbols of justice and democracy in order to avoid a more [End Page 379] painful conversation about the complicity of the public in the crimes of the past. Those interested in the details of the civil rights cases will undoubtedly want to supplement this book with more in-depth studies of individual trials, given that Romano’s focus is on the larger meaning of this search for justice. Nevertheless, this work is essential reading for those interested in better understanding how Alabama and other southern states have begun to address the legacy of the struggle for civil rights, and it is a much-needed contribution to the ongoing national conversation on race, justice, and the pervasiveness of inequality."—Matthew Downs, Alabama Review
“An extremely important and engaging book. Romano provides a much needed link between the racist violence of our past and the persistence of white supremacy in our ‘post-racial’ era. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in justice and democracy.”—Emilye Crosby, author of A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi
“Over the last two decades, the violent death throes of Jim Crow have been replayed in courtrooms across the South, as prosecutors have reopened some of the most notorious murders of the civil rights era. In this wise, probing, gently skeptical book, Romano considers why these prosecutions are happening now, the truths they reveal and conceal, and what they tell us about America’s continuing racial odyssey.”—James T. Campbell, author of Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787–2005
Renee C. Romano Oberlin College
Robert S. Danforth Professor of History, Comparative American Studies and Africana Studies