Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Ghosts of Mississippi strike again

The movie "The Ghosts of Mississippi" documented the conviction of Byron de la Beckwith, the man who murdered civil rights leader Medgar Wiley Evers. The hero, played by Alec Baldwin, was an assistant District Attorney named Bobby DeLaughter, who seemed destined by fate to bring Beckwith to justice.

DeLaughter became a national hero for his efforts and he gave Mississippi a positive headline concerning one of the darkest eras in American history. Besides the movie, DeLaughter parlayed his fame into a book about the case and became a Circuit Court Judge. His legacy looked to be cemented as a great American story.

However, it is now obvious that the story will not have a happy ending. DeLaughter, on July 30, 2009, pled guilty to obstructing a federal investigation into the actions of Attorney Dickie Scruggs, who was another Mississippi success story gone bad.

This is a sad moment for all of us because it shows how quickly our "fifteen minutes of fame" can go south quick. It is sad because it shows how important it is for those of us who choose public service as our vocation to stay above temptation and how hard it is to do so.

It is true that when you become a public servant, changes come in your life. Your schedule becomes more demanding and it will put a strain on your financial and personal life. That is what makes keeping the public trust so hard for some, because character flaws will be revealed and weaknesses exploited. DeLaughter's flaw was trusting his friends with securing his ambitious desires. DeLaughter badly wanted to be a federal judge and with his pedigree, he seemed destined to achieve that goal.

However, he did not understand how he got to be in the position he was in. DeLaughter suffered personal setbacks in pursuing justice in the Evers case, yet it all worked out in the end. Had he learned that lesson, he would not have put himself in the position to jeopardize all that he had worked for on a promise that sounded too easy.

A champion for justice should never turn his back on justice for personal gain. He could have turned his back on justice for the Evers family but he did not and many of us are grateful for that. I personally wish he could have finished that journey on a positive note. I knew Judge DeLaughter and worked with him on many occasions. I helped him celebrate in his moment of triumph, both in the courtroom and on the silver screen. Now, I am powerless in his moment of adversity.

Unfortunately, DeLaughter will not be the last Mississippian to achieve a national stature and then fall from grace. Every time that happens though, it just brings those dreaded "ghosts" that continue to haunt us in the forefront again.