Washington — I read the other day in the New York Times’s obituary columns of the death of a long-forgotten segregationist figure from America’s civil rights struggle, Lawrence A. Rainey, a disgraced sheriff from Meridian, Mississippi. His death elicited reflections on how far America has come in the struggle for racial equality since his fleeting notoriety in 1964. A speech I had heard at the District of Columbia Circuit Court House about the time Rainey was breathing his last made my reflections all the more poignant. It was made by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I wonder how Rainey accounted for the rise of Justice Thomas. Conceivably, Rainey’s views on Thomas were similar to the publicly stated views of the Rev. Jesse Jackson — another fearful symmetry that.
Rainey was a rural Southern sheriff implicated in one of the most contemptible episodes of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the disappearance and murder of three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both white and from New York City; and James Chaney, a black from Meridian, Mississippi. On June 21, 1964, they were jailed in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on a speeding violation — a civil rights worker did not have to drive very fast in those days to get stopped. They were released in the late afternoon and drove off into the night, never to be seen alive again. Over the next few weeks, as the nation clamored for news of their whereabouts, Sheriff Rainey deprecated concerns for their safety. With the insolence of a bully he claimed “they’re just hiding out somewhere and trying to get a lot of publicity out of it.” Anyone familiar with the taunts of Nazis and communists recognizes the effrontery.
Actually the three civil rights workers were dead. Their bodies were discovered in an earthen dam on August 4. In early 1965 Rainey and 17 other men were tried on Federal charges. Most likely the civil rights workers had been murdered hours after leaving Rainey’s jail, after his deputy, Cecil R. Price, handed them over to fellow racists. Of the 17 men tried for violating the civil rights of the victims, nine were convicted including Price and a Klan leader. Rainey was acquitted, but history was moving fast in the 1960s. He never got another job in Mississippi law enforcement and spent the rest of his days as a security guard in a supermarket and at a shopping mall.
For thirty-seven years Rainey and racists like him have been watching their segregationist vision of the world evanesce as blacks have moved up into the middle class and on to some of the highest positions in American life. Like the retired Soviet apparatchiks in Russia, they rattle around in their retirement believing that the world has taken a dreadful turn down a dark road. I read an interview some years ago with a retired Soviet pooh-bah. He still believed: Kapitalism doomed, Democracy a sham. Doubtless in the dank holes where the racists of yesteryear brood many still believe a colorblind society is a Gomorrah.
Then there is Justice Thomas, to give them a migraine. I heard him speak the other day at the portrait unveiling for Judge Lawrence Silberman. There were other speakers, all very distinguished and eloquent; but none spoke so eloquently and learnedly as this black justice, who had been raised in poverty in Sheriff Rainey’s rural South. Contrary to his detractors he has a first-rate mind, a fine sense of the law, and character of the finest mettle. He thinks for himself. At Yale Law School his thoughts followed a radical course. As life went on he adopted conservative principles. For exercising his freedom of thought he has been abominated by the career civil rights mountebanks. Their tireless public contempt for him has made his life a trial.
Listening to him the other day at the Court House, it occurred to me that he is too sensitive a man not to be wounded by their slanders, but he remains cheerful and unbowed. His laugh is one of the most musical instruments in Washington. I know of no better rounded man than Justice Thomas.
America is moving toward the colorblind free society that Martin Luther King, Jr. envisaged, and Sheriff Rainey execrated. Jesse Jackson denounces black conservatives for arriving at positions that blacks are not supposed to take. Like the segregationists of yore, Jackson apparently believes that blacks should “know their place.” The higher they climb in American life the more the career civil rights mountebanks will make them suffer. Jackson is not as evil a man as Sheriff Rainey, but he is not a very good man — and it is increasingly apparent that he is not a friend of civil rights. Clarence Thomas is.
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