Working through collective sin

Susan Neiman considers how Americans might learn from Germany.

For their podcast White Lies, journalists Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley returned to their native Alabama to investigate the 1965 murder of James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston who was beaten to death while marching for racial justice in Selma, Alabama. The three men who were seen committing the crime were brought to trial later that year—and were acquitted by an all-white jury. One surviving member of that jury refused to speak about the case, telling Grace and Brantley that it was “a thing of the past. It’s all gone. It’d be better if it’s forgot about.”

During their search for the truth about Reeb’s murder, Grace and Brantley realized that they weren’t just piecing together facts. They were obliged to “think critically about how, collectively, white people have done a very poor job of being honest about the sins of the past.”

Susan Neiman’s book embodies this concept of naming and working through collective sin. Neiman, a philosopher and the director of the Einstein Forum in Berlin, has lived in Berlin for much of the past four decades. But she grew up in the segregation-era South. During her time in Berlin, both before and after reunification, she saw firsthand the process by which Germany has reckoned with its Nazi past. These experiences inspired her to return to her native South to explore how Americans might use examples of Germans’ engagement with collective sin to bring about reconciliation in their communities.