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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On Scalia, 'racial entitlement,' and the power of history

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has been getting skewered - and deservedly so - after his from-the-bench comments calling the protections in Voting Rights Act "racial entitlements." It takes a perverse view of the world, and a blind view of history, to call the still-insufficient efforts of the federal government to protect a minority against a majority an "entitlement." It really makes you wish Scalia would follow his pope's example and retire for the good of the institution. Not to mention the country.

The debate brings to mind a story I wrote for the Los Angeles Times more than a decade ago about a single civil rights-era murder. The victim was William Moore who, much like Viola Liuzzo, was white and gunned down over support for equal rights.

What propelled me to write this piece was the victim's anonymity in our history books. Much like the book I have since written, this was meant to both explore the echoes of the past, and to try to resurrect a moment that seemed to define its time, but that had fallen out of our collective memory.

The link to the story is here, but pasted below is the "nut graph" - the meat of the piece:
Prosecution in the Moore case was bound to be problematic. Despite legions of FBI infiltrators in the '60s, cracking the secrecy of the most violent cadres of the Ku Klux Klan was difficult. In many cases, local law enforcement aided segregationists and looked the other way as Klansmen killed activists, beat pacifists and burned and bombed homes and churches.

It was not an atmosphere conducive to swift justice. William Rayburn, the Etowah County prosecutor handling the Moore case, predicted privately to FBI officials that, given the local mood, he doubted a grand jury would indict Simpson--even if he signed a confession. Rayburn was right: In September 1963, five months after Moore's murder, an Etowah County grand jury decided there wasn't enough evidence to charge Simpson.

Sometimes justice does reach back. On May 22 of this year, Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, the last of four former Klansmen suspected of blowing up the 16th Street Church, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison one year after fellow Klansman Tommy Blanton was convicted for his role. Byron De La Beckwith, Evers' murderer, was convicted in 1994, three decades after that killing, and was sentenced to life in a Mississippi prison, where he died last year.

Emboldened by those successes, prosecutors have dusted off at least 11 civil rights era cases in the South, hoping to bring fresh charges. But countless other killings, including Moore's, have simply faded into history. As time passes and suspects and witnesses die, resolution becomes less likely. Simpson went to his grave four years ago without ever publicly discussing the killing, or his arrest. His wife and children maintain his silence.

Moore's widow, remarried 32 years ago to a quarryman and stone artist, lives on a 288-acre spread in rural northeast Pennsylvania. Mary Moore Birchard still has questions about what happened on that dark road in northeast Alabama, about why the grand jury decided not to indict Simpson despite eyewitness accounts placing a car like his at the scene, ballistics tests that found the killer's rifle was the same make and model as Simpson's, and Simpson's refusal to tell investigators what he had done after 4 p.m. on that cloudy spring day.

''It's always been my prayer that I would know who killed him before I die,'' Mary says.

There's more at stake than a widow's desire for certainty. Moore's murder remains part of the nation's unfinished business, a stain that can only be rinsed out with the truth, even if the guilty are beyond reach.
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