May We All Be More Like Dick Molpus

[UPDATE: Jon Stewart corrected the mistake on last night’s Daily Show.  Definitely worth watching, for the humor, the sincerity of the apology, and a priceless graphic at the end that I won’t ruin for you.]

People make mistakes. They let their office lose track of paperwork to ratify the 13th amendment in their state. Or they mistakenly assume that a brave Mississippi politician is actually an overt racist. 

As one who has messed up, in public, more than once—yea, even on this very internet!—I know how easy it is to get things wrong. Unfortunately, any correction (and there really should be a correction in this case) is often less interesting than the error. So the error gets perpetuated.

Well, this is a rare instance where the correction is vastly more interesting than the original zinger. Heck, forget interesting, it’s downright inspiring. So if you’re a Daily Show watcher, please, before you go chuckling “ahahaha classic Dick Molpus” at the water cooler, take a moment to learn what a “classic Dick Molpus” might actually be. And then, by all means, go and commit all the classic Dick Molpuses your little heart desires. The world will be better off for it.

First, some background: The Daily Show lampooned former Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus on its Feb. 20 episode. It seems that when Mississippi finally voted, in 1995, to ratify the 13th amendment outlawing slavery, Molpus’ office neglected to send a copy of the legislation to the federal registrar, so the law didn’t become official. 

Okay, so that’s kind of an absurd situation with comedic potential. But then Jon Stewart did a bit where he pretended to be Dick Molpus putting the form in the “mailbox,” which was really a paper shredder, because… Molpus is likely a racist, I gather was the idea. It turns out, though, that the real Dick Molpus has been a champion of civil rights in Mississippi, for decades, at significant political and personal risk.

Consider Molpus’ 1989 speech at Mt. Zion Church in Longdale, MS.

Twenty-five years prior, on the evening of June 16, 1964, Mt. Zion Church was burned to the ground, and several of its members brutally beaten, by members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi. The klansmen had expected to find Michael Schwerner, a field worker for the Congress of Racial Equality. 

Schwerner and two of his CORE colleagues—James Earle Chaney and Andrew Goodman—were actually in Ohio at the time, but heard of the Mt. Zion burning and came back to Mississippi to investigate. They were pulled over, arrested, released, tailed, and finally ambushed and murdered by klansmen. You can read the whole terrible history here.

In 1988, Molpus was approached about speaking at an event at the now-rebuilt church, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the murders of the three civil rights workers. According to this account, Molpus was advised not to go. It would be politically unwise and personally risky—and besides, he was a young and popular politician with a promising career ahead. Why go alienating people by bringing up the past?

Instead, Molpus attended, and said these words:

We deeply regret what happened here 25 years ago. We wish we could undo it. We are profoundly sorry that they are gone. We wish we could bring them back. Every decent person in Philadelphia and Neshoba County and Mississippi feels that way. The nation and the world thinks of the events of 1964 in Philadelphia in historical terms and the deaths of these dedicated young men as a pivotal event in a great national movement. Of course, this is true—but it is not the whole truth.

For fundamentally this was a human tragedy. Your presence here today underscores that. Three mothers’ sons died here on June 21, 1964. Sons, brothers, a father, a husband—young men who had been nurtured by loving families, just as I was and my friends were as we grew up here in Philadelphia. Their loss cut deeply at the hearts of family and friends. It left an aching void. This is what Philadelphia, Mississippi, has come to understand—that we are not talking about abstractions, but about human beings. It is that common bond of humanity that crosses racial, regional, cultural, and religious lines that makes our divisions seem so petty.

(Read the whole thing here. If you’re like me, you’ll applaud and resolve to be a better and braver person.) 

For this, according to Molpus, he received “a number of death threats and a host of bitter and sick correspondence.” Six years later, in Molpus’ unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, his opponent Kirk Fordice belittled him for having given the speech. Yet those who care about racial reconciliation in Mississippi called his speech a “watershed in Missippi civil rights history.” It led directly to the formation of the Philadelphia Coalition, a multiracial coalition that helped get klansman and minister Edgar Ray Killen convicted of manslaughter for his role in the 1964 killings—in 2005, 41 years later.

Meanwhile, Molpus just keeps saying gutsy things—like when he told a roomful of people, one of whom was Governor Haley Barbour:

Few politicians today use outright race baiting, but we see the symbols some use and the phrases they utter and everyone knows what the code is—what really is being said.

Oh, and he’s also called attention to how voter ID laws endanger the voting rights of poor and elderly people, and was named a Champion of Justice by the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Yep. Classic Dick Molpus. May his tribe increase. 

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