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"Remembrance and Change in Neshoba County,"

by James W. Loewen July/August 2004 issue of Poverty & Race

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Freedom Summer, which brought a thousand young Americans, mostly white college students, to Mississippi for the summer of 1964. They would instruct African Americans on how to register to vote, teach history and other subjects to black youngsters in “Freedom Schools,” and assist the Civil Rights Movement in other ways. Most of all, leaders of the Mississippi movement like Bob Moses hoped that the presence of these volunteers would provide some safety for Civil Rights workers, who were being beaten and arrested across the state without protection from the federal government or attention from the media.

Four of five Americans living today were unborn or younger than 6 in 1964, and since the event is not well taught in high school, where most U.S. history courses dwindle to an end shortly after World War II, let me summarize the tragic beginning of that summer. Mickey Schwerner, white, Jewish, from the New York City area, had already been working for the Movement in Meridian, in east Mississippi. James Chaney, a young black Meridian resident, had signed on as a volunteer. On Memorial Day, 1964, they went to Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Neshoba County to talk about voter registration. A few days later they drove to Oxford, Ohio, where training was going on for the volunteers about to come to Mississippi. On June 16, KKK terrorists, having heard of the earlier meeting, visited Mt. Zion and beat and intimidated members of a church committee who happened to be meeting there that night. The next day, they burned the church to the ground.

On June 20, Schwerner and Chaney drove back to Mississippi with several summer volunteers, including Andrew Goodman, also white and Jewish, and a New Yorker. The next morning, the three drove to Mt. Zion and talked with parishioners about the violence. As they were driving back toward Philadelphia, the county seat, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price arrested all three for an alleged traffic violation and threw them in jail. They were released at 10 pm, but as they drove out of Philadelphia they were stopped again and delivered into the hands of the KKK. They were never seen alive again.

A terrible Hollywood movie, Mississippi Burning, fictionalizes what happened next, making heroes of the FBI. In reality, the FBI had no black agents at all, no office in Mississippi, and little enthusiasm to solve the crime. National outcry about the deaths, spurred by letters and telegrams from parents of the 1,000 volunteers, forced FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to open one, however, and LBJ called out the Navy to search for the bodies. During the summer, while working in northern Wisconsin, I got a letter from my uncle telling that, according to rumor, the sheriff and deputy sheriff took part, as well as Klansmen, and the bodies were buried in an earthen dam somewhere in Neshoba County. I realized that if my uncle — a Northern professor at Mississippi State University — knew, then everyone in Mississippi knew. Yet the FBI seemed stymied. At last, agents bribed one Klansman to inform on the others, and in December federal authorities charged nineteen people with conspiring to interfere with the civil rights of the three victims. Eventually, seven of the nineteen were convicted and received sentences of three to ten years; they actually served less than that — Price did four years, for example. Murder is a state crime, of course, but Mississippi never charged anyone.

During the trials and appeals, lasting until 1970, Neshoba County exemplified a closed society. Because the perpetrators still walked its streets, in a sense the entire white community was complicit in the decision not to prosecute them for murder. I remember doing research in the county one day in 1967. At noon I broke for lunch, at the white cafe on the courthouse square. As I ate alone at a small table for two, a white man detached himself from a group that had been eyeing me, came over, sat in the chair opposite me, glared at me and asked what I was doing in Philadelphia. Luckily, my reason — learning about the social position of Mississippi’s Choctaw Indians, who also live in Neshoba County, to contrast that of Chinese Mississippians in the Mississippi Delta, about whom I was writing a Ph.D. dissertation — satisfied him, but the experience was unsettling. Those few whites who lived in Philadelphia and spoke out against the murders experienced more serious consequences. The principle of cognitive dissonance teaches us to expect that opinions will get twisted to harmonize with past acts, and that is what happened in Neshoba County.

Neshoba County Revisited

If we revisit later years in Neshoba County, we can see how far it — and the nation — has come since 1964, partly as a result of the events of that year. We may also find clues as to how we have also gone wrong.

Fast forward to January 1970, when Neshoba County finally began to turn around. School desegregation proved key. In that month, the Supreme Court’s order in Alexander v. Holmes took effect, ending “freedom-of choice” desegregation. No longer should blacks be free to choose white schools, or vice versa (which didn’t happen anyway), because there should not be “white” or “black” schools — there should be “just schools.” Neshoba whites found compliance easier than whites in many other districts because African Americans were in a minority in the county. Although most schools lost such amenities as social clubs and PTAs when they merged, most parents kept their children in the public schools. Now, suddenly, a car with both races riding in the front seat might not be an “integrated car” but just teachers on their way to school together.

Fast forward to 1980. On his first day of campaigning after winning the GOP Presidential nomination, Ronald Reagan spoke at the Neshoba County Fair. He said not a word about the event that had made Neshoba famous around the world. Instead, he declared his support for “states’ rights,” the code word that signaled that the federal government should not enforce laws mandating equal treatment for African Americans. Thirty-five thousand white supporters roared approval. Thus, Reagan furthered Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” which continues to bear fruit for Republicans today — not just in the South, but also in white suburbs and sundown towns in the North.

Fast forward to 1989. At the 25th anniversary remembrance, then-Secretary of State Dick Molpus, who grew up in Philadelphia, made a historic apology to the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner at Mount Zion Methodist: “We deeply regret what happened here 25 years ago. We wish we could undo it. We are profoundly sorry that they are gone. We wish we could bring them back.”

Unfortunately, when Molpus ran for governor in 1995, he lost to the incumbent Republican.

Fast forward to 1994. On the 30th anniversary of the murders, Jackson State University and Tougaloo College hosted an emotional reunion of Freedom Summer volunteers and local people that included an excursion to Neshoba, but almost no local whites attended the service at Mt. Zion or the rally at the courthouse in Philadelphia.

Neshoba County 2004

Fast forward finally to 2004. Three major events, perhaps four, marked this anniversary. Jackson State University, Tougaloo College and Tulane University mounted a four-day symposium, “Unsettling Memories.” A pair of remembrance services was held in Neshoba County on June 20. Ben Chaney, James’ younger brother, led a busload of young people from Washington, DC, to Jackson, doing voter registration on the way. And a fourth event may come to pass: the re-opening of the murders as an investigation and eventually a trial, since Mississippi never charged anyone with those crimes.

I attended the Jackson State, Tougaloo and Neshoba events and found them both moving and disturbing. In Neshoba, this time local whites played a central role — too central to some, including Chaney, who felt that the new event would upstage the traditional Mt. Zion service. About 1,800 people attended the new remembrance, organized by a newly formed “Philadelphia Coalition,” held at the Neshoba County Coliseum and chaired by the young president of the Neshoba NAACP. At the rear of the spacious building, white Philadelphians, eager to make a good impression, served a catfish dinner to all, at no charge.

Without a doubt, the motives of white Neshobans were mixed. In time for the occasion, the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce produced a remarkable booklet, “African-American Heritage Driving Tour,” that includes the jail, the murder site, the swamp where a Choctaw Indian found the burned station wagon, Mt. Zion of course, even the Busy Bee Cafe and Barber Shop. Business leaders know this tragedy was the most important event ever to take place in Neshoba County; one sponsor of the booklet is Philadelphia/Neshoba Tourism.

But what would we have them do? Not put out such a brochure? It also includes photos and vignettes of nineteen residents, mostly African American, who played positive roles in the Neshoba freedom struggle. Thirteen additional photos and vignettes, titled “Rewards of Sacrifice,” highlight young African Americans from Neshoba who have become physicians, educational leaders or professional athletes. The booklet includes a useful bibliography on the tragedy and ends with a paragraph stating, “Neshoba County discovered that the cancer of racism infects each person it touches...”

Similarly, would we have them not hold a 40th remembrance? In preparation for the event, the County Board of Supervisors and the Philadelphia City Council drafted and signed a statement calling for “justice in this case.” Excerpts follow:

“There is, for good and obvious reasons, no statute of limitations on murder.... We call on the Neshoba County District Attorney, the state Attorney General, and the FBI to make every effort to seek justice in this case. We deplore the possibility that history will record that the state of Mississippi, and this community in particular, did not make a good faith effort to seek justice. We state candidly and with deep regret that some of our own citizens, including local and state law enforcement officers, were involved in the planning and execution of these murders.... Finally, we wish to say to the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner that we are profoundly sorry for what was done in this community to your loved ones.”

In the wake of the successful prosecution of other white supremacist murderers in Mississippi and Alabama and the reopening of the Emmett Till murder case, this statement may be bearing fruit. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood announced he was seeking help from federal authorities; U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton of Jackson said his office has been working on it; and at the Coliseum, Mississippi’s Republican Governor Haley Barbour said he favored reopening the case.

To be sure, there were false notes. One speaker called the three “Christian martyrs” — Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish, of course. Barbour assured us, “Our state of Mississippi is a wonderful place and our nation the greatest ever,” and then conflated the struggle for civil rights with the fight against “Islamic terror.” He drew only tepid applause. But hypocrisy is a first step toward civilized behavior, and at least the governor’s appearance meant he was exposed to Dick Molpus, who again provided the words that made the occasion memorable.

Molpus called the three “American patriots” and those who killed them “domestic terrorists.” Addressing the locals, he noted that the perpetrators had “certainly told wives, children and buddies of their involvement,” and he urged those persons to come forward to the authorities. Most importantly, he declared, “We Mississippians must announce to the world what we have learned in the last 40 years: our enemies are...” and he then provided a list that included ignorance, racism and an inferior educational system, which drew an ovation.

Not all is well in Neshoba County. A young white adult told me he had never heard a word about the Civil Rights Movement in the Philadelphia public schools. The history page at the Chamber of Commerce website spends two paragraphs on Neshoba County’s first 30 years, from 1833 to 1863, then “covers” the period from 1863 to 2004 in a single paragraph that never mentions civil rights or the events of 1964! Local libraries do not have the books that are in the bibliography of the Chamber of Commerce brochure. (One speaker at the Mt. Zion service announced she was remedying that forthwith and handed copies of each book to a church representative.) Only 34% of black students in the Philadelphia public schools read on grade level, compared to 90% of white students.

Similarly, not all is well in America. In 1980, Reagan helped to derail us from our work toward “the beloved community,” instead implying that resistance to justice across racial lines was appropriate and would be rewarded. The educational and social disparities in Philadelphia, Mississippi, are mirrored in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and across our “greatest ever” nation. Remembering Freedom Summer — which was much more than the Neshoba tragedy — can help us get back on track. I hope to have whetted your appetite to learn more — you who are in that four of five too young to have experienced it the first time. You can connect with this event. You can sing along: “Keep on a-walkin’. Keep on a-talkin’. Gonna build a brand new world.”

James W. Loewen taught at Tougaloo College in 1965 and 1968-1975. He is best known for his book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong. In November, New Press will publish hew newest book, Sundown Towns, about all-white towns that are all-white on purpose.

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