When Violence was Standard Operating Proceedure: The War Without a Name
By DICK J. REAVIS
Early this month the Federal Bureau of Investigation revealed that it has compiled a list of 51 still-unsolved murders reported in connection with Southern civil rights campaigns during the 1950s and 60s. Congressman John Lewis has called for funding their investigation.
The number of unsolved cases suggests that activists and sympathizers of the Movement, as it was called, were participants, not merely in a series of protests, but in an unrecognized and asymmetric civil war.
The nation hasn’t called the civil rights turmoil a war, and the consequence of its lexicon of evasion and elision has been a failure to honor, absolve and compensate hundreds of its veterans.
Those who were killed and brutalized by racists during that period have not been termed, Argentine- or Mexican-style, victims of a “Dirty War,” nor have civil rights soldiers been honored as war heroes, perhaps they were pledged to a strategy of nonviolence–and kept their word. But on the other side of the war, as the FBI’s list makes clear, violence was S.O.P., Standard Operating Procedure.
Dozens bombings and burnings of churches, schools and stores, “acts of terror,” we’d say today, are still officially untallied, not scheduled for even an FBI review. Nor are hundreds of attacks in which bullets missed their marks. Many of these assaults were carried out by Ku Klux Klansmen who, in the current lexicon, would be styled as “members of a Christian extremist militia.” If there’s collusion today between the Malaki government and the Mehdi army, it is a mirror of the nexus between Southern lawmen and the Klan.
Commentators and historians have avoided the term “displacement of the civilian population” to describe events of the civil rights movement. Yet the tents of black sharecroppers who were evicted from their homes for attempting to vote dotted woodlands across the South. In plain language, theirs were “refugee camps.”
For a decade after the conflict ended, Movement activists suffered from the symptoms of what is today called, usually in reference to veterans of the Vietnam and Iraq wars, “post traumatic stress disorder.” If their recurrent nightmares of beatings and threats were not diagnosed as symptoms of PTSD, it was because for them, there was no VA.
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