The transformative capacity of commemorating violent pasts (completed)

Claire Whitlinger

Within the past two decades citizens have become more likely to pressure their governments to acknowledge past wrongdoings. Thus commemorations, marches, memorials, trials, and truth commissions—all social phenomena meant to cultivate, and at times manipulate, collective memory—have become integral to political strategies for post-conflict reconciliation. The question of a commemoration’s causal power, then, has significant implications for social policy and the wellbeing of those who live in communities where, in Desmond Tutu’s words, the “past refuses to lie down quietly.” If governments, corporations, universities and local communities hope to commemorate violent pasts in productive ways, it is essential that we understand if, when, and how commemorations of violent pasts may spur social change.

This project explores these questions in the context of one community – Philadelphia, Mississippi – a city notorious for the silence and denial surrounding the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Drawing on insights from the historical sociological literature on temporal processes, this project will establish a detailed analytical narrative of the case based on a variety of data sources (archives, interviews, and participant observation) in order to evaluate if, why, and how the 2004 commemoration service in Philadelphia, Mississippi served as a critical conjuncture, the confluence of structural causes and events at a particular time that created a unique outcome, in this case, structural transformations across legal, educational, and political spheres. The project contributes to broader debates in sociology about social movements, collective memory, and institutional change.

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