For decades, Philadelphia, Mississippi epitomized Southern racism as the site of the 1964 “Mississippi Burning” murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Yet in a striking turn of events, the community’s efforts to confront its history of racial violence is now commended by academics and racial reconciliation practitioners as a model for other cities hoping to do the same. This introductory chapter situates this local transformation within a global political and cultural landscape, highlighting the “memory boom” ignited by WWII, which constructed acknowledgment and atonement with moral righteousness and legitimate democracy. Then, after reviewing scholarly debates on the social utility of commemorating violent pasts, the chapter argues that such commemorations are neither entirely beneficial nor detrimental to social life, as popular and scholarly texts often suggest. Rather, scholars should identify the conditions that enable commemorations of violent pasts to transform the often tragic conditions out of which they emerge. In this way, commemorations must be understood as both the cause and consequence of related memory movements. Studying commemorative outcomes therefore requires a detailed historical and counterfactual analysis, a methodological approach discussed in the chapter’s final section.
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