by Gene Owens
Three years ago this month, I visited Philadelphia, Miss., and wrote the following words:
The black people and the white people of Neshoba County and Philadelphia are a lot friendlier toward each other today than they were 38 years ago.
But the community still lives in the shadow of a nightmare, and it still shelters some who committed murder and arson in the confidence that they had the approval of their neighbors.
About 100 people came together last Sunday to remember the bitterness and to call for closure.
On June 16, 1964, a band of Ku Klux Klan members surrounded a small black church - Mount Zion United Methodist - about 12 miles outside Philadelphia. They beat up 10 of its members and burned the building to the ground. They were looking for Michael Schwerner, a Jewish civil-rights worker from New York, and James Chaney, a black Mississippi civil-rights activist.
Five days later, Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, spotted Chaney and Schwerner along with Andrew Goodman, a New York college student who had joined their cause. He arrested them on a dubious charge, then released them under $20 bond. As they left town, they were abducted and shot, then buried in an earthen dam.
At the rebuilt Mt. Zion Church Sunday, Matilda Kirkland told of the night of June 16, 1964, when she heard her adoptive mother crying as she came to bed late in the night after attending the business meeting at the church.
At breakfast the next morning, she learned why. The face of J. R. Cole, her adoptive father, was "all swollen" from the beating he had taken.
The shadow of a conscience in one of the assailants may have spared Cole's life. Kirkland said her mother remembered asking the Klansmen whether she could pray as they beat her husband.
"If it will help you, pray," he replied. And as she went to her knees and begged Heaven for help, the Klansman told his henchmen: "Let him live."
Kirkland remembers spending the rest of that hot summer sleeping with the covers pulled over her face. She felt that "if they didn't see my face, they wouldn't bother me."
When it became obvious that the state of Mississippi would not prosecute, federal authorities charged 19 men with conspiring to violate the civil rights of the slain men. Three of the accused, including Price, were convicted. The most anybody served was six years. Price died a year ago after an accidental fall. Nine are still alive and free.
Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore re-opened the case in 1999. He faces the daunting problem of dying witnesses and dimmingÂ memories.
The FBI turned over to the state more than 40,000 files pertaining to the case. George C. Clark, vice chairman of the Mississippi Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, thinks they contain enough evidence to convict.
"Most people are a lot more courteous, more polite," said Jimmie McDonald, whose mother, Georgia Rush, was among those beaten on June 16, 1964. "Most try their best to consider our feelings."
"James Chaney said someone may have to die for change to come," said the Rev. John Steele, one of the memorial speakers.
Chaney died, and change came. Those in attendance Sunday were reminded that they could register to vote on their way out of the church.
Clarke, the main speaker for the memorial event, called the killers and burners "the Bin Ladens of Neshoba County," and gave the violent defenders of yesterday's segregation a contemporary name: terrorists. He wants them prosecuted.
"It's a matter of record who the murderers are," Clark said. "Everybody knows who they are."
The memorial service closed with a candle-lighting for deceased civil-rights workers. Mary Ann Ross of Columbus, Miss., James Chaney's first cousin, lighted one for him. Matilda Kirkland lighted one for her parents.
Philadelphia, Miss., is an attractive little city of 7,725, about 30 miles northwest of Meridian. Its downtown seems to have emerged fresh from the '50s. Churches line its streets and roads, and tidy little houses nestle along its shady streets.
Philadelphia's white community, no longer under the spell of die-hard racists, would like to relegate all the ugliness to the past.
The waitress who served me pancakes at a local restaurant seemed to speak for the white community:
"A lot of stuff went on that shouldn't have went on. People have gotta live with it."
But without closure, forgetting comes hard.
Post script: On June 21, 2005, a Neshoba County jury found Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old invalid, guilty of manslaughter for his role in organizing the abduction and slaying of the civil-rights workers. He is likely to be the last person tried for the crime.
That wasn't closure, but it's probably as close as we're going to get. Let the onus for justice delayed rest on those who condoned the atrocity. Let the rest of us resolve that such a blight will never again dishonor our region.
Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.
As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.
He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He recently went into semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.
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Write Gene Owens at 317 Braeburn Drive, Anderson SC 29621 or e-mail him at WadesDixieCo@aol.com
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