ATLANTA - If your son had been murdered 41 years ago simply for his political activism, would you be willing to forget it after all these years and allow the mastermind of his murder to go free? If your child had been executed by vicious animals and buried anonymously in an earthen dam, would you tell government authorities to let the man who staged his murder off the hook because he's now old? Of course not.
Neither did the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman or Michael Schwerner. They took comfort in last week's conviction of 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen, who was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison for his role in orchestrating the killings. During the tense "Freedom Summer" of 1964, when throngs of idealistic young adults - black and white - came to the South to aid voter registration, Mr. Chaney, Mr. Goodman and Mr. Schwerner were lured off the road in rural Mississippi, beaten and shot. Their bodies were found 44 days later under 15 feet of dirt near a farm pond.
According to published reports, Mr. Goodman's mother, Carolyn, told reporters outside the courthouse when the trial started, "This trial has taken a long time to happen, and now I know that justice will be served." But that justice, even belated, is important not only for the surviving families. It's important for the rest of us, too - those who never knew Mr. Chaney, Mr. Goodman or Mr. Schwerner, those who've never been in Philadelphia, Miss., those too young to remember Freedom Summer.
The three men, all in their early 20s, were working to ensure that black Mississippians had the chance to vote. There is nothing more American than that. So Mr. Killen's conviction marks Americans as a people committed to the democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution, including the universal franchise and equal justice for all.
Among those most eager to see Mr. Killen brought to justice were several Neshoba County residents - black and white - who wanted to send a message that their community no longer countenanced racial violence. They understood that the old wounds could not heal until they were opened and cleansed.
Still, some Americans don't seem to get it. Various voices have objected to the prosecution of a frail 80-year-old, of a trial that inevitably loosed recollections of a sordid past they wanted to keep buried, of a case built, they claimed, on political correctness. But I've not heard anyone argue that Iraq shouldn't prosecute Saddam Hussein, even though his crimes are old news, he's out of power and he's a shadow of his former intimidating self.
Like the Senate's recent apology for failing to pass an anti-lynching law, Mr. Killen's conviction is largely symbolic. He managed to evade a murder conviction and live much of his life as a free man, as did the other perpetrators, several of whom are long dead. In 1967, federal prosecutors charged 18 men, including Mr. Killen, with violations of the victims' civil rights; only seven were convicted, and none served more than six years in prison. (Mr. Killen escaped a guilty verdict back then because a lone juror refused to convict a preacher.)
Still, symbols matter. If they didn't, Ronald Reagan never would have opened his 1980 campaign for the presidency in Philadelphia, Miss., which had a nationwide reputation for only one thing - the murders of Mr. Chaney, Mr. Goodman and Mr. Schwerner.
In going there to declare "I believe in states' rights," Mr. Reagan sent a not-so-subtle message to a certain segment of the white South - those who continued to resent the civil rights movement - that he sympathized with them. Now, perhaps, Philadelphia can be used as a symbol of a hopeful future, not a reminder of a hateful past.
At the time of the murders, Mr. Killen and his ilk believed that white men in Mississippi could kill black men with impunity. It turns out they were wrong. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. often said, "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." It's good to see that moral arc stretch back over 41 years.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.