Last week, the government of Canada offered a billion-dollar settlement to Native Americans who were taken from their families as children and consigned to state boarding schools as part of a forced assimilation policy. At the same time, the governor of Montana issued posthumous pardons to 78 people convicted of sedition during World War I for no offense other than being of German descent. Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church of the United States considers joining the ranks of churches, corporations and universities that have apologized for their complicity in slavery.
Whether this wave of apologies, pardons, and reparations payments represents the triumph of an international culture of human rights or a descent into silliness and sentimentality - "contrition chic," in one critic's phrase - is a matter of debate. But the questions these initiatives pose are both timely and timeless. How do institutions and communities move forward in the aftermath of great injustice? How do we reconcile those aspects of our past that are beautiful and gracious with those that provoke shame and horror?
As we consider these questions, it is worth pausing to observe the passing of Florence Mars.
Florence Mars came from Philadelphia, Miss. She was born there in 1923 and died there last month. She was also there in 1964, when a group of local Klansmen murdered Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman and buried their bodies in an earthen dam.
Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman were not the first civil-rights workers to disappear in Mississippi, but they were the first whose disappearance engaged the nation. The unprecedented interest in the crime was, in part, a function of race: in contrast to previous cases, where victims had been black and Southern, two of the three men murdered in Philadelphia were white Northerners. But Americans were also transfixed by the behavior of the local citizenry, who seemed determined to live down to every stereotype of Southern recalcitrance and bigotry.
Crowds jeered FBI agents as they dragged rivers and swamps, searching for the bodies. Journalists were assaulted. One frustrated FBI agent remarked that Philadelphia did not need a Klan, since everyone in town seemed intent on shielding the killers.
Almost everyone. As her town fell silent, Florence Mars stood up, five feet tall in her shoes, and spoke out. She openly cooperated with FBI agents. She confronted church and community leaders, demanding that they reveal what they knew about the murders. She became such a thorn in the side of Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, one of the men responsible for the killings, that he tossed her in the drunk tank, an act that scandalized some community members more than the murders themselves.
In her book, Witness in Philadelphia, one of the classic memoirs of the civil-rights era, Mars described the campaign against her, not only the Klan-led boycott of her business but also the ostracism she endured at the hands of friends and neighbors. Probably the most painful episode came when she was dismissed from her position teaching Sunday school, lest she infect the children with her beliefs.
In June 1966, on the second anniversary of the murders, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march on the Philadelphia courthouse. King later described it as one of the most terrifying moments in his career, as he and fellow marchers faced a furious mob, which pelted them with bottles and epithets. Under the circumstances, he can be forgiven for overlooking the tiny white woman who stood alone on the courthouse square, waving an American flag in welcome.
Last summer, Florence Mars, her body ravaged by Bell's palsy, sat in a wheelchair in that same courthouse and watched as an aged Klansman and sometime preacher named Edgar Ray Killen was convicted for his role in orchestrating the murders. Town leaders hailed her for her courage. A few apologized.
After the conviction, Philadelphians spoke of finally bringing "closure" to a case that had long blighted their city. For better or worse, it doesn't work that way. Facing the past is a long and painful process. It requires not only holding individual perpetrators to account but also acknowledging the ways in which many people, through inaction and indifference, become complicit in grave injustice.
We are all, in our own ways, witnesses in Philadelphia. Only a few of us find the courage to speak.
James T. Campbell (James_T_Campbell@brown.edu), an associate professor of American civilization and Africana studies at Brown University, is the author of "Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005," published this week. He will be speaking at 7 tonight at the Penn Bookstore, 3601 Walnut St.
© 2006 The Philadelphia Inquirer