Billups on Whitlinger, 'Between Remembrance and Repair: Commemorating Racial Violence in Philadelphia, Mississippi'

Claire Whitlinger. Between Remembrance and Repair: Commemorating Racial Violence in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 304 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-5633-5; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-5632-8.

Reviewed by William Billups (Emory University )
Published on H-South (September, 2020)
Commissioned by Bennett Parten (Yale University)

Printable Version:

On the night of June 21, 1964, Ku Klux Klan members murdered three civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—in Neshoba County, Mississippi. In the months following the homicides, the county and its seat, Philadelphia, then an east-central Mississippi town of about six thousand, became national symbols of racial bigotry. Yet despite initial media interest in the killings, the national spotlight soon abandoned Neshoba County and the triple murder that made it famous. 

In Between Remembrance and Repair, sociologist Claire Whitlinger analyzes how Neshoba County residents grappled with the legacy of those murders and the larger significance of their efforts to do so. Working primarily with news sources, archived material, and interviews with over sixty people, she explores “how commemorations of racial violence work and whether they can transform the often contested and tragic conditions from which they emerge” (p. 2). Using Philadelphians’ 1989 and 2004 commemorations of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner’s deaths as case studies, Whitlinger argues that commemorations of racial violence, under the right conditions, can lead to prosecutions, legislation, grassroots organizing, and other concrete efforts to address past and present racial injustice. 

In the first two chapters, Whitlinger traces the broad trajectories of civil rights memory in Neshoba County. For decades, local attitudes toward Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner’s murders were generally split along racial lines, with local whites ignoring their deaths and some African American church communities commemorating them regularly. Alan Parker’s film Mississippi Burning (1988) temporarily disrupted this “bifurcated mnemonic landscape” by reigniting national interest in the killings (p. 35). In response, Philadelphia’s civic leaders formed a coalition in 1989 to lead a community-wide commemoration on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the civil rights workers’ deaths. With over one thousand attendees, positive news coverage, and addresses from “civil rights veterans, community members, and family members of the slain civil rights workers,” the 1989 commemoration was widely considered a success (p. 47). Yet the event sparked no new efforts by state or community actors to address racial injustice. Fifteen years later, a similar committee planned a commemoration largely modeled after the 1989 ceremony. Unlike its predecessor, the 2004 event spurred a civil rights prosecution, education legislation, and grassroots efforts to document Mississippi’s history of racial violence—developments on which Whitlinger sets her sights for the next set of chapters.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are where Whitlinger proves her claim that commemorations of racial violence can positively reshape their surrounding environments. For example, in chapter 3 she establishes critical links between the 2004 commemoration and the successful murder prosecution of Klansman Edgar Ray Killen (2005), undoubtedly her book’s strongest and most direct example of a commemorative event inspiring efforts to pursue justice. The connections she makes between the commemoration and the 2006 passage of Mississippi Senate Bill 2718 (which called for robust civil and human rights education in Mississippi’s public schools) in chapter 4 and efforts to establish a truth commission about racial violence in chapter 5 are generally convincing as well. Chapters 4 and 5 build on chapter 3 by emphasizing that Killen’s conviction was a catalyst for the education bill and truth commission initiatives. Together, these three chapters illuminate the potential ripple effects of civil rights murder prosecutions and show that state and civilian actors built on each other’s efforts to pursue justice and reform in the wake of the 2004 commemoration in Philadelphia.

Yet, if the 2004 commemoration had such demonstrable effects, then why did its 1989 predecessor lead to no substantive changes? Whitlinger tackles this question in chapters 6 and 7. She shifts to a comparative methodology to isolate differences between the 1989 and 2004 commemorations that help explain why the latter had a greater impact than the former. Chapter 7, which focuses on internal differences between the 1989 and 2004 planning committees, is the stronger of the two and perhaps the strongest chapter in the book. Here, Whitlinger makes her fullest use of her interviews to analyze the 1989 and 2004 planning committees from the standpoint of social psychology. She illustrates how the 2004 committee members proved more successful than their predecessors in developing shared goals and identities across racial and class lines. Storytelling proved crucial to their success. She builds on this observation in chapter 8 (the book’s conclusion), noting that “the significance of storytelling in this case suggests that the power of commemoration is in its process” (p. 173).

One important aspect of Between Remembrance and Repair is that it sits at the juncture of sociology and memory studies, which allows Whitlinger to engage with work on collective memory and its relationships with movements and social structures. She engages most frequently with sociologist Raj Ghoshal and builds on his study of how external factors can shape the success of commemorations of racial violence.[1] Noting that scholars typically emphasize the influence of social forces on commemorations, Whitlinger inverts this traditional focus by offering a study of a commemorative project reshaping its surrounding conditions. She argues that while outside forces influenced the 2004 commemoration, the commemorative event itself facilitated change and sent shock waves through some of those external structures.

As a sociologist, Whitlinger engages more directly in theoretical than historiographical debates, and she occasionally makes remarks, such as that Neshoba County’s “historical context did not change between 1989 and 2004,” that some historians will read as fighting words (p. 138). Even so, she makes noteworthy contributions to scholarship on the civil rights movement’s legacy. In her discussion of Neshoba County’s mnemonic landscape in chapter 1, Whitlinger demonstrates the important roles black communities and institutions play in protecting local civil rights memory in settings where those in power have sought to whitewash or erase it. Moreover, her analysis of the 1989 and 2004 commemorations illustrates how civil rights memory has long been contested, especially along racial and geographic lines. Veterans of national civil rights organizations debated with local organizers over the 2004 commemoration’s location. Tribal leaders in the county’s approximately four thousand–strong Choctaw community, whose ancestors successfully resisted Indian removal in the 1830s, considered whether racial violence was best forgotten. In the epilogue, the author notes that many of these tensions have persisted in Neshoba County.

On the whole, Between Remembrance and Repair would have benefited from more detailed descriptions of the commemorations themselves. After using media accounts to describe memorial events in the mid-1960s and 1976, the annual ceremonies in Neshoba County’s African American churches receive only a brief description at the end of chapter 1. Relatedly, while Whitlinger thoroughly describes the planning of the 1989 and 2004 commemorations, the actual ceremonies each receive only about one page of devoted description in chapter 2. In addition to providing useful frames of reference for later chapters, more attention to the actual ceremonies would have strengthened the author’s analysis of how these events embodied specific traditions of civil rights memory. In fairness, the actual contents of the ceremonies are far less important to Whitlinger’s main argument than what preceded and followed them. Yet more thorough descriptions and analyses of the commemorations themselves would have helped clarify these events’ relationships with different—and sometimes competing—memory traditions.

There are two errors in the text that should be noted to avoid confusion. On pages 30 and 102, the monument to Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner that the Mt. Nebo congregation erected in 1976 is misdated to 1972 (the correct year is provided on pages 35 and 177). Additionally, on page 63, Samuel Bowers is mistaken for Medgar Evers’s murderer, Byron de la Beckwith (the author correctly notes on the same page that Bowers was convicted in 1998 for the 1966 killing of Vernon Dahmer). Both issues are small and do not detract from Whitlinger’s excellent book.  

Overall, Whitlinger provides a compelling, analytically rich study that makes meaningful contributions to multiple disciplines. She unpacks how collective memory can translate into structural change, and in doing so provides an additional—and powerful—explanation of why commemorating racial violence matters. For anyone trying to understand how commemorating the past can change the present, Between Remembrance and Repair has much to offer.


[1]. See Raj Ghoshal, “Transforming Collective Memory: Mnemonic Opportunity Structures and the Outcomes of Racial Violence Memory Movements,” Theory and Society 42, no. 4 (July 2013): 329–50.

Citation: William Billups. Review of Whitlinger, Claire, Between Remembrance and Repair: Commemorating Racial Violence in Philadelphia, Mississippi. H-South, H-Net Reviews. September, 2020.

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