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Some Southerners understand collateral responsibility

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000


Southerners have a tortured relationship with their history. If they are not romanticizing it, they are denying it.

Rarely do Southerners look themselves in the eye and fess up to the racism, the violence and the rascality that shaped the region's character.

Merely romanticizing and denying history are no great matters unto themselves. But their consequences -- the broad human damage they foment -- continue to act as a ghostly blueprint that subtly determines and guides behavior, especially behavior between white people and black people.

Ultimately, though, romanticizing and denying the past ostensibly absolve Southerners of what I call collateral responsibility. I define it as our moral duty to correct the residual effects of the collective wrongs of earlier generations.

I have written about this subject several times during the past 10 years, and the response from whites always has been the same: anger and the argument that white people today bear no responsibility for the past.

Fortunately, not all whites believe such nonsense. An important example of someone who understands collateral responsibility is Florida Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson. On Wednesday, Nelson, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate, announced the settlement of a nationwide class-action suit during a press conference in Tallahassee. Nelson indicated that tens of thousands of low-income blacks in the Sunshine State will receive cash refunds because of years of being charged more than white customers for the same burial and other low-value policies.

Some companies, by the way, charged blacks 33 percent more than whites, a practice that did not stop in Florida until several weeks ago, when Nelson issued a cease-and-desist order. The evil is that the practice was institutional nationwide. White and black agents throughout the South, who went door-to-door, were given two books, with two different sets of premiums.

Here is what James D. Crane, who went to work for Independent Life & Accident Insurance Co., in 1964, told the Wall Street Journal of orders from his Gadsden, Ala., district manager: "You write the white people out of this and the niggers out of this."

For their wrongs, these companies must shell out $206-million, not including other adjustments. And one of those so-called "niggers" is Bessie Jones, 71, a grandmother originally from Quincy, who has lived in Sarasota for more than 40 years. She, like many other blacks over the years, including my grandparents, tried to tell someone, anyone, that something "was funny" about their policies.

After a relative died, for example, many survivors discovered less than $100 in their accounts even though they had paid in as much $1,600 over many years. Jones did not give up. Nelson listened to her and others and initiated a probe that has resulted in a landmark decision.

Nelson and I have spoken often about this crisis, and I am convinced that his concern transcends burial insurance. He understands the need to set the past right, to commit oneself to collateral responsibility.

"The reason we're doing this is for the Bessie Joneses of the world," he said in a telephone interview. "There are millions of consumers who, like her, were taken advantage of by being charged more because of their race. It's inconceivable -- and unconscionable -- that this practice would continue up until the present."

Inconceivable? Unconscionable?

Not when people refuse to assume collateral responsibility.

Thankfully, Nelson is not the only Southerner who may have seen the light. Throughout the South, in fact, a handful of other public officials are trying to right some old wrongs, wrongs whose legacies perpetuate human cruelty.

Mike Moore, Mississippi's attorney general, the man who sparked the nationwide fight against the tobacco industry, decided to reopen the infamous 1964 case in which civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goldman and James Chaney were murdered by the Klan. I have spoken to Moore, and I am convinced that he understands the relationship of history to the present -- of how we need to be honest with ourselves about the past's hold on us, the cyberspace living.

In Alabama, brave prosecutors have revisited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where, in 1963 (the year I went to college), four black girls died in a bomb blast. Two former Klansmen have been indicted for these atrocities.

Down in Louisiana, the FBI recently restarted an investigation into the 1964 deaths of two black men whose bodies were found in a swamp. Then something unheard of in 1970, when the incident occurred, happened recently in Mississippi when a jury went over 30-year-old evidence and convicted three white men of killing a one-armed black sharecropper and throwing his body into a river.

Similar crusades are taking hold elsewhere in the South. These awful crimes are being given the attention they should have been given when they occurred. The Economist magazine aptly describes the men and women who are bringing some long-overdue justice to the South:

"Most of the momentum to reopen these cases comes from a defiant group of young lawyers and prosecutors, determined to discover the truth before time erodes the evidence or puts the suspects beyond reach. Many of this new generation grew up when the passions of the civil-rights struggle was still fresh in people's minds."

Simply stated, they, along with Commissioner Nelson, understand the concept of collateral responsibility -- the moral duty to correct the residual effects of the collective wrongs of earlier generations.

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