In this article, the proposal to create a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) in Mississippi is examined. Nearly half a century after the dismantlement of legally sanctioned Jim Crow, many aspects of the state’s violent history of racial oppression remain in the shadows. In the state with the highest number of lynchings after Reconstruction and a governmental agency committed to the preservation of segregation during the Civil Rights Movement, the African-American population continues to suffer disproportionately from lower quality education and housing segregation, as well as higher poverty, teen pregnancy and child mortality rates. Confronting the state’s history of racism has proved difficult and unsatisfactory in many regards. Though they provided individual accountability in a handful of cases, the well-publicized trials of Ku-Klux-Klansmen have also produced a skewed and incomplete historical record, while failing entirely to address the legacy of past discrimination in present-day Mississippi. The shortcomings of traditional retributive justice – as epitomized by such trials – are at the root of current attempts to engage with the state’s history from a different perspective.
The TRC, an increasingly popular tool of restorative and transitional justice, is being used in a variety of geo-political contexts across the world. By focusing on the needs of victims and promoting a non-adversarial approach to the notion of justice, truth commissions aim to confront the ghosts of the past and foster societal reconciliation for the future. Drawing on the experiences of truth and reconciliation processes in other countries, the article examines the strengths and weaknesses of truth-seeking in Mississippi and develops normative proposals for the Commission’s future operation. It evaluates the main challenges facing Mississippi’s truth-seeking project, including the state’s history of institutional racism, the complicity of ordinary Mississippians in Jim Crow, as well as the Commission’s mandate in relation to symbolism, reparations, amnesties and traditional criminal justice. The article seeks to contribute to the growing literature on how restorative justice, in particular the TRC model, can be used to deal with America’s history of racial injustice.