does remembering racial violence matter? – a guest post by raj ghoshal and claire whitlinger

Raj Ghoshal ( is an assistant professor of sociology at Goucher College. Claire Whitlinger ( is a graduate student in sociology at Michigan, starting as an assistant professor at Furman University in August. This guest post discusses racial violence and the sociology of collective memory.

In a new special issue of Race & Justice ( on the legacies of past racial violence, we each consider how commemorative projects can impact present-day views and events. As we discuss broad cultural processes, our articles may be of interest to cultural sociologists generally.

In “What Does Remembering Racial Violence Do?” (, I (Raj) consider the Greensboro, North Carolina’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a private group which in the early 2000s revisited the 1979 killings of five communist demonstrators by the Ku Klux Klan. I draw on a survey of 716 North Carolinians and find that the Commission’s efforts had some, albeit modest, impact on stated support for state redress of past racial injustice toward African Americans. But despite this overall effect, two factors shaped the Commission’s effectiveness in surprising ways.

First, Greensboro’s truth commission blamed both the KKK and police/government officials for the 1979 violence. Unsurprisingly, survey data showed that the KKK-blame narrative was more widely accepted than the government-blame one, and knowing about the commission boosted Klan-blame more than government-blame. Strikingly, though, blaming the Klan – a private group – yielded increased support for government redress of past injustice, while blaming the government itself did not. Why should a privately-caused injustice cry out for government remedies more than a government-caused injustice? I suggest that mnemonic casting of the KKK as morally vile is so strong that it overrides what otherwise might seem logical: that government should have more responsibility for its own actions than for other people’s past actions. The power of the Klan’s reputation is especially striking in this case because in Greensboro, four of the five demonstrators killed were white. Nonetheless, Klan-blame appeared to trigger sympathy for those mnemonically cast as the Klan’s usual victims – African Americans – regardless of the particulars of this event. The case suggests that the “stickiness” of reputations ( may be even more powerful than previously known.

Second, increased support for racial redress was concentrated among ideological moderates and liberals. Among very-conservatives, awareness of the Commission actually increased opposition to redress (Commission-aware “very conservatives” opposed redress more than Commission-unaware “very conservatives”). Preaching to its opponents’ choir was not merely futile, but counterproductive, perhaps because it raised the salience of the issue and triggered defensive responses rather than persuasion. Despite their use of historic information, then, memory projects that connect to “hot” issues like race face some of the same challenges seen in directly political conflicts, where trying to persuade opponents may often be not just useless, but counterproductive (

In “From Commemoration to Conviction: Prosecuting Edgar Ray Killen for the ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders” (, I (Claire) examine the 2005 prosecution of Edgar Ray Killen for the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers. Using event structure analysis ( and drawing on archival sources, media accounts, and interview data, I suggest that this trial would not have occurred without the earlier 40th anniversary commemoration of the killings in Philadelphia, Mississippi. To better understand the consequences of such community-based commemorative efforts, I identify four processes that were set in motion because of the 2004 commemoration.

First, the commemoration mobilized a new generation of local mnemonic entrepreneurs.  As with previous “big” anniversaries of the murders (particularly, the 25th), local leaders knew the national spotlight would be on Philadelphia, Mississippi once again. The 40th anniversary presented an opportunity for a younger generation of emerging community leaders to challenge the “Mississippi Burning” narrative and—once and for all—transform their community’s reputation. Second, the process of planning and enacting the commemoration cultivated organizational structures and resources needed to pressure key political authorities to pursue legal justice. This organization emerged in the form of the Philadelphia Coalition, a thirty member interracial task force with support from the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.  Third, the commemoration shifted the opportunity structures as it unfolded by providing a platform for powerful political and cultural actors to interact. And finally, the commemoration transformed the local political culture through intentional media coverage and the “memory of commemoration” (

Together, our papers push forward efforts to understand whether and how collective memory shapes present-day beliefs and events. The cumulative nature of memory can generate institutional change beyond the domain of memory itself. Commemorations can provide opportunities for mobilizing mnemonic entrepreneurs, cultivating organizational structures, and framing legal claims. Simultaneously, broader political and cultural tendencies constrain and enable how bringing the past into the present plays out.

The issue is edited by David Cunningham and Geoff Ward, and also features articles on the continuing impact of past racial violence, and on efforts to come to terms with such violence, by Margaret Burnham, Nick Petersen and Geoff Ward, and Susan Glisson. Check it out!

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Written by fabiorojas

May 12, 2015 at 12:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. Great post, Raj and Claire. I knew some of the people killed in Greensboro, so have always had an interest in that event. The theoretical/empirical arguments you make are really interesting.



    May 12, 2015 at 12:12 pm

  2. Claire and Raj both do great work on this topic.



    May 12, 2015 at 1:23 pm

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