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America Continues to Grapple with 'Ghosts' of Racism


June 19 is a day with special significance for African-Americans. June 19, 1865 is considered the date when the last slaves were freed in the United States following the American Civil War. Ever since, African-Americans have marked the day known as 'Juneteenth' as a kind of holiday. Slavery may be a distant memory for some, but the United States continues to grapple with its racial past in many other ways.

Recent events in Washington and Mississippi serve as reminders of the never-ending struggle Americans have with the ghosts of racism.

In Washington, the U.S. Senate took the unusual step of issuing a public apology for its historical role in blocking efforts by the federal government to stop the practice of lynching.

Nearly 5,000 people, most of them African-Americans, were lynched in a period from the 1880s until the 1960s.

Among them was a man named Anthony Crawford, who was put to death by a mob in South Carolina in 1916.

His great-great granddaughter, Doria Johnson, welcomed the Senate's expression of regret.

"This is an important apology for African-Americans and the history that we share in this country. Lynchings were done to terrorize the black communities," she said.

Virginia Republican George Allen was among the dozens of Senators who co-sponsored the resolution offering the apology.

"We are going to look at our history, the stain on the history of the United States Senate and I think it does show the character of this nation that we are still trying to achieve that most perfect union with equality and justice for all," he said.

Even as the Senate took its action, there was another search for racial justice in the southern state of Mississippi.

Edgar Ray Killen
Edgar Killen, a former member of the racist hate group the Ku Klux Klan, went on trial for murder in connection with the deaths of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964.

The murders of the three young men, one black, the other two white, helped to galvanize the civil rights movement in the south and forced the federal government to take a more active role in enforcing civil rights laws.

Mr. Killen was tried along with several others on federal civil rights charges in 1967. Seven people were convicted but the jury deadlocked in Mr. Killen's case and he went free.

The case was also the inspiration for the 1988 Hollywood film, Mississippi Burning.

Civil rights activists see the Senate apology and the Mississippi trial as the latest examples of America trying to come to grips with its racial past.

"I think it is a very important part of the reconciliation process. We have had such a troubling history in our country of racial discrimination that also includes violence, maiming and murder. So it is important that we bring some closure to these issues," said Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington office of one of the country's leading civil rights organizations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP.

Roger Wilkins, a former journalist and Justice Department official and a veteran of the civil rights movement, said as a young black man growing up in Minnesota, he was reluctant to visit the south during the racially divisive 1960s.

"And I was afraid. I was absolutely afraid as were many northern blacks. In essence, we just lived in half a country. We did not want to go to the South," said Mr. Wilkins, who is now a professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia.

But Professor Wilkins is now a frequent visitor to the south and says the racial climate has improved significantly.

"I do not go down there and offer to speak. They reach out to me and ask me to come and speak. Clearly, in these universities they are making an effort to change, to put the past behind them," he said.

Professor Wilkins expects the United States to deal with its racial past for generations to come. And he says that process has meaning for other nations as well.

"Our history is a history of struggle and sometimes error and sometimes folly that is part of the human struggle and we do make mistakes and it does mean we have to approach the world and problems with some kind of humility and ability to learn from others rather than to dictate to others because these acknowledgments of our past failures remind us that we are not perfect," he said.

The Senate apology on lynching was not the first of its kind. In 1988, Congress apologized to Japanese-Americans held in camps during World War II. And in 1993, Congress issued an apology to native Hawaiians for the overthrow of their king a century earlier.