Devil's Sanctuary


terri schlichenmeyer

Today’s 18-year-olds don’t remember a time before the Internet. Ronald Reagan was already a trivia answer when they were born and Nelson Mandella was a free man. For these newly-minted adults, there has always been fighting in Iraq, but no Cold War. And though “Sesame Street” was part of their nursery, they never knew The Muppets creator.

And what else are they missing because they “weren’t there?”

Today’s 18-year-olds, like millions of adults, didn’t witness a lot of hard history by virtue of late birth. But they can catch up on one subject by reading “Devil’s Sanctuary: An Eyewitness History of Mississippi Hate Crimes” by Alex A. Alston Jr. and James L. Dickerson. This book will fill in some gaps.

Though it might have seemed to many people outside Mississippi in the 1950s and ’60s that white crime against black citizens had suddenly cropped up in response to a burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, the truth was that trouble had been bubbling for decades. Between 1880 and 1949, almost 600 people were lynched in Mississippi, and forced confessions through torture (such as waterboarding) was not uncommon.

Before the Civil Rights Movement, blacks and whites seemed to intermingle with ease in some areas of the state, but the undercurrent, say the authors, was “evil.” The situation worsened considerably when 14-year-old Emmett Till was abducted from his bed, tortured, stripped and killed for the “crime” of whistling at a white woman. The NAACP moved quickly to support black Mississippians, followed by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which moved quickly to investigate the NAACP.

Local politicians and white leaders took care of things in their own way. Corruption was rampant, having a “talk” with the sheriff “took care of everything,” and justice was often nonexistent for black citizens.

Still, there were pinpoints of light between the hate. Bravery was seen on both sides of the color barrier. Some merchants defied laws and hired black salesclerks or opened their doors to African American consumers. Anti-segregation newspaper editors spoke their minds.

Even now, despite that we’re 40-plus years beyond the Civil Rights Act, the authors say that racial problems continue in Mississippi. Reportedly, some children were forbidden to mention Barack Obama’s name at school during the presidential campaign.

Alston and Dickerson both grew up in Mississippi and are still residents. Both were affected by the racial divide as children and as adults, which means that bits of their personal memories are included, along with political goings-on and scraped-raw history. They don’t mince words in their descriptions of the events, and time does not soften the horror they describe.

Be aware that this is not a take-to-skim-with-lunch book. “Devil’s Sanctuary” is hard to read, not because the words are scholarly, but because they’re brutal. If you’re of the generation who can’t know what happened — or even if you remember it well — this book shouldn’t be missed.

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