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50 Years After Freedom Summer, U.S. Faces Greatest Curbs on Voting Rights Since Reconstruction

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In a week marking the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, Mississippi was in the news when African-American voters crossed party lines to help Republican Sen. Thad Cochran narrowly defeat a tea party challenger to win his party’s nomination. It was just a year ago that Cochran praised a Supreme Court decision that gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act. We are joined by three guests: Jerry Mitchell, investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, whose work helped put four Klansmen behind bars, including the man who orchestrated the Klan’s 1964 killings of three civil rights activists; Ari Berman, who covers voting rights for The Nation, author of a forthcoming book to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act; and David Goodman, brother of slain civil rights activist Andrew Goodman.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We stay now in Mississippi, a state that was in the news this week when African-American voters crossed party lines to help Republican Senator Thad Cochran narrowly defeat a tea party challenger to win his party’s nomination. It was just a year ago that Cochran praised a Supreme Court decision that gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act. An editorial in today’s New York Times calls on him to now become the first Republican to cross party lines to support a new measure that would restore the act’s protections.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re staying in Jackson, Mississippi, where we’re joined by Jerry Mitchell, investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger. His work has helped put four Klansmen behind bars, including the man who orchestrated the Klan’s '64 killings of the three civil rights activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, during Freedom Summer, as well as the assassin of NAACP leader Medgar Evers in 1963. He's writing a book on cold cases from the civil rights era called Race Against Time.

We’re also joined by Ari Berman, who covers voting rights for The Nation. His latest article, “Fifty Years After Freedom Summer, the Voting Rights Act Is Needed More Than Ever,” and “Where Are the GOP Supporters of Voting Rights?” also working on a book to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.

Jerry Mitchell, as we talk about voting rights, can you just talk very briefly about this unusual race that took place, with Thad Cochran, the longtime incumbent senator, narrowly defeating a tea party challenger—


AMY GOODMAN: —by appealing to black Democrats to come out and vote for him?


AMY GOODMAN: In some states, it’s a closed primary, so Democrats can’t run for—vote for Republicans, and vice versa. But how does it work in Mississippi?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, it’s the opposite of that: It’s an open primary. And so, if you vote—for example, in this case, you had a runoff. Let’s say you voted in the Democratic primary as a Democrat. You could turn right around and vote for the—in the Republican runoff. There is no restriction on that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jerry Mitchell, on this anniversary of the killings of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, you were instrumental in finally getting, through your coverage, one of the Klansmen, Edgar Ray Killen, finally convicted, although it took more than 40 years. Could you talk a little bit about how you were able to uncover or finally get this story out?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, what it was, there was an interview that—Sam Bowers, who was the head of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, had done an interview. There had been a prosecution, federal prosecution, in 1967 for violating civil rights. Eighteen men were tried then. Seven were convicted, including Bowers, and the rest of the 18 walked. Bowers said, in this secret interview I was able to get a copy of, that he was quite delighted to be convicted and have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free man, and he was referring to Edgar Ray Killen. And so, that was what got the case reopened in 1999 and eventually led to reprosecution in 2005.

AMY GOODMAN: David Goodman, were you at the trial? What did it mean to you to have Preacher Killen actually put behind bars?

DAVID GOODMAN: Yes, I was at the trial. And you know what? It’s a good question. It’s mixed with emotion, and it’s a complicated question. I can give you the simple, quick answer that, you know, he was involved in a murder, ostensibly, it was determined—actually, he wasn’t convicted for murder; he was convicted for manslaughter, which is a lower count. But, to me—and if somebody commits a crime, they should be convicted and pay the price for that. But no one else was convicted. The people who were physically—he was not physically at the scene of the crime. The men who were physically there were never convicted of anything. They weren’t even tried. And you can’t be convicted if you’re not tried. They weren’t even indicted, which is kind of step one.

And, to me, the question is: How do you indict society? These men who killed my brother did commit a crime, but it was condoned by millions and millions and millions of people. In that movie clip you showed from Neshoba, there’s a piece where one of the relatives of one of the murderers, who was known to be there—and, by the way, that was established in a federal court—who killed my brother and James and Mickey—their Social Security number, the FBI knew. It never got to a state court, which is the only place murder can be tried. He said, “If you come into somebody’s community and you stick your nose into their business, don’t be surprised if it gets cut off.” And then he paused a moment and said, “You know, they deserved it.” Forty years later, he’s condoning murder to protect their way of life. And the whole society protected a way of life that resulted in murders, not just of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, but of hundreds of people. And it was a police state, condoned.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask Ari Berman, a little time we have left, your—the status of voting rights in America today, and given this anniversary and this—these murders helped propel the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965?

ARI BERMAN: Well, right now we’re seeing the greatest restriction of voting rights since Reconstruction. And so, voting rights is an issue just like it was in 1964, 1965. It is still very relevant today. Since the 2010 election, 22 states have passed new voting restrictions, things like strict voter ID or cuts to early voting, restriction of same-day registration, things like that. And so, there’s a great need now for the Voting Rights Act. Ironically, at the same time we’re seeing this great push to restrict voting rights, the Supreme Court has taken a totally different view that the Voting Rights Act is not needed in a way that it was needed in 1965. So, there’s something of an irony. Justice Ginsburg, in her dissent in that Shelby County decision you mentioned earlier, said that Section 5, which meant that states like Mississippi had to clear their voting changes with the federal government, it was like an umbrella, and you don’t take away the umbrella when it’s not raining. And the irony is that it was pouring. There was so much voting discrimination at the time that the Supreme Court took away that decision. And so, now voting rights advocates are trying to protect voting rights without that crucial protection from the Supreme Court.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Jerry Mitchell, do you feel Mississippi is different today? I mean, you’ve been investigating these crimes for years, but you’re also attending these voting rights and Freedom Summer gatherings that are taking place in Mississippi.

JERRY MITCHELL: Right. Well, Mississippi has changed a lot. Back in—50 years ago, there were 6 percent of African Americans were even allowed to vote in Mississippi. Today, Mississippi has more African-American elected officials than any other state. So, Mississippi has come a long ways, but we have to also be honest and say it still has a long ways to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, and, David, as you come up from Mississippi back to New York and New Jersey where you live, do you feel progress has been made after the deaths of your brother and so many others?

DAVID GOODMAN: Well, I think Mississippi reflects the rest of the country. There was a lot of—there has been a lot of progress made all around the country. The issues now are more subtle, a different mode of restriction. And I look at the intent when people do something. The people who murdered my brother committed the worst crime, but they also assassinated the Constitution. That’s how I felt about it. And when you—whether you’re a Democrat or Republican—and both parties have done it—you’re assassinating the Constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank David Goodman, Ari Berman, Jerry Mitchell. Thanks so much for being with us. That does it for our show.

I’ll be speaking tonight in Chicago at the Crown Plaza Hotel, Conference Center, Chicago O’Hare Airport area. Check our website at And we have two job openings at Democracy Now! Check

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