Originally Published: October 28, 2006 4 a.m.
When a news item crossed my desk a few days ago noting the 39th anniversary of the federal verdicts in the1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman,Michael Schwerner and JamesChaney, I happened to bereading a novel about the same period.
It reminded me that the killers essentially got away with murder. The federal courts convicted seven men on charges of conspiracy to deny civil rights, but none served more than six years. That travesty of justice, combined with insight that only fiction can reveal, prompted one of those rare moments of lucidity when one sees clearly what was and what needs to be.
The novel is Doug Mar-lette's "Magic Time," published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The story is about a newspaper columnist, Carter Ransom, who finds himself drawn from his present-day job in New York City where a terrorist bomb has just destroyed an art museum to his Southern past in Mississippi during the civil rights era.
Visiting history through Ransom's eyes, we see the affinity between those who murdered civil rights workers and those who blow up art museums. Or fly airplanes into buildings. Both act out of resentment and nihilism; both wrap themselves in a mantle of religion. Same story, different sheets.
It so happens that Marlette, who is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning political car-toonist, spent part of his childhood in Laurel, Miss. He went to school with the children of those charged with killing Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney. Marlette's own father, a Ma-rine Corps lifer, was among those sent looking for the missing civil rights workers.
When Marlette saw the planes hit the World Trade Center five years ago, he says his first association was to the "bitter, resentful, powerless religious fanatics of the American South'' who waged war on the civil rights movement of his youth.
When he saw the scenes of Muslims celebrating in the streets after almost the murder of almost 3,000 people on American soil, his mind flashed to President John F. Kennedy's as-sassination when his Mississippi classroom erupted in cheers. He remembered hearing elected officials make snide jokes about Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.
Those associations in-spired his novel. Marlette says he wanted to examine what effect the big moral issues have on people, how they transform people's lives, how they respond and how they live the rest of their lives.
This is a consistent theme for Marlette, whose family often seems to be present in the cross hairs of history. His previous (and first)novel, "The Bridge,'' concerned the Carolina mill strikes during which Na-tional Guardsmen bayoneted his own grandmother.
Marlette is especially riveted by the "Good German phenomenon'' how good people can avert their gaze from horror. How did decent people look the other way when Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, young men in their 20s, were savagely beaten and shot to death?
In the final analysis, good people do not turn away.