Klansman's Conscience

WHEN wrongdoing flourishes and goes unpunished one often hears the bitter comment, ``There is no justice.'' But a 36-year-old murder case in Alabama that has now come to light shows there is no statute of limitations on conscience - even for a hardened member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Since 1957, Henry Alexander kept secret his involvement in the Klan murder of a black man late one night. The man, Willie Edwards Jr., had been idling his tractor-trailer in a parking lot when Mr. Alexander and several other Klansmen pulled him from the cab, accused him of offending a white woman, led him to a deserted bridge 50 feet over a river, and forced him to jump, screaming, to his death.

Alexander, also accused at the time of setting the bomb that destroyed the front of the house of civil rights leader Rev. Ralph Abernathy in Montgomery, Ala., was arrested but not convicted for the Edwards killing in 1976 when the case resurfaced. He devoutly maintained his innocence with his wife Diane until just before his death last year of cancer. Ms. Alexander, in a moving story in the New York Times, said her husband, in the days before his death, had confessed, felt terrible remorse, and said, ``I don't even know what God has planned for me. I don't even know how to pray for myself.''

Stunned and angry after believing him for 18 years, she has written a letter of apology to Edwards's widow. ``Henry lived a lie all his life, and he made me live it too,'' she said.

What may strike some as meaningful about the case is its illustration of a moral animus that has real power in human experience. Issues of conscience, of right and wrong, may be treated as relative or inconsequential. But as Henry Alexander found, they are not. Murder is wrong, powerfully so, as are lies. One does not know if the former Klansman felt real repentance, or merely fear about retribution in the hereafter. Either way, he could not forget the deed, even after 36 years and even though he may have felt justified, since it was for a cause he supported, racial segregation.

Justice is ``a moral force,'' the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. often said from his Montgomery pulpit in the 1950s near where Alexander lived. He seems to have been right.

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