Sunday, June 13, 2004
I am proud of my hometown.
Those are six words I never expected to say. I grew up, like many restless kids, thinking my town was the most backward place on earth. That's normal. But when I was 14 and found out what occurred in Philadelphia, Miss., when I was 3, I was overwhelmed with shame. That's tragic
When I learned that neither the town nor the state had done anything about the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, there to help blacks register to vote, I took it nearly as a personal affront that "my" people—the white people of Neshoba County, and the state—wouldn't say those murders were wrong and try to prosecute at least some of the gaggle of conspirators.
There's something about being the next generation from something so horrifying. You're trapped in this weird, stifling place: You know in your heart that your neighbors committed a serious wrong, but in a bizarre way, you're compelled to protect your loved ones. So you clam up. Or you excuse. Or you obfuscate. Or you up and leave and say to hell with it all. Those people will never change. They don't care about the legacy they leave us-the-next-generation.
They're stuck in an endless cycle.
The excuses I heard were endless and nauseating and inadequate: "What about all the crimes happening now?" "Just a bunch of loser rednecks did that." "We didn't know any better." "They came down here and got themselves killed."
When I was growing up and then visiting home later, the cycle of covert racism seemed as if it would never end: Afro Queens and rebel flags and racist jokes whispered because the Civil Rights Movement meant you couldn't tell them out loud any more. Kirk Fordice's "No More Mississippi Burning!" jab, and Ronald Reagan's—may he rest in peace—appeal to our worst instincts when he kicked off his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, talking about state's rights but not civil rights nine miles from where the bodies were found decaying under a red-clay dam.
When homeboy Dick Molpus turned to the families of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner during the 25th anniversary of the murders in 1989—an event then relegated to the black community—and told them he was sorry on behalf of Neshoba County and the state, he made many of us proud. He also arguably ruined his political career, bringing on Fordice's harsh admonishment at the 1995 Neshoba County Fair. But those words of contrition were right.
It was wrong in 1989 when, in the U.S. Congress, Sen. Trent Lott and most of the Mississippi delegation refused to co-sponsor a congressional resolution honoring June 21 as Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner Day. Either they didn't feel contrition for the murders, or they worried that they would lose votes if they showed remorse. I'm not sure which is more despicable.
What many of our parents' generation have not understood through all these years is how they are hurting their own children by refusing to stand up, denounce Jim Crow-era murders like those in Neshoba County, apologize to the families of the victims and show that Mississippi has changed. Our forebears have refused to own up to what many of them enabled, or even helped facilitate. And make no mistake: Every person who turned their heads, every member of the White Citizens Council, every legislator who voted to fund the Sovereignty Commission and every racist journalist who yelled about bloodstains on the marble steps helped facilitate the deaths of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Admitting that and moving on is a difficult exercise in integrity and honesty and tough love for our state, but it's vital and necessary.
We children have grown up in a confused society where it is taboo to talk about race but commonplace to play the race card for political or personal gain. We all know the code words. We have been told that criminals, even if they're 13, must be locked away, while we know murderers who walk free because their crime was killing to squelch justice for all. We sons and daughters of Mississippi are seldom proud of our recent history, even though we can be defensive with the best of them. We're taught to believe in God and values, yet are in denial about what Jesus inevitably would do in this case: Stand up, and make it right.
I visited Neshoba County in 1999 when I was in graduate school to write my master's project about the murders—very painful earth for me to till. As I talked to people like Stanley Dearman—the now-retired editor of the Neshoba Democrat who has lobbied tirelessly for justice in Philadelphia—I felt his hopelessness. There was no memorial at the spot where the men were killed (someone would destroy it, he told me) or at the jail where the three men ate chicken-and-dumplings as their last meal. The only markers were in black areas; the Mt. Zion community commemorates the murders of the three men, none Neshoba natives, every year whether the families or media show up or not.
But white Neshoba County tried to forget. Except that too many couldn't. The wound was still wide open and festering. The right thing had not been done. Oh well, many people would say, it's probably too late anyway. The ones who are still alive are old. It's hard to find evidence to convict.
Those people missed the point. It's about trying. If some determined law man like Bobby DeLaughter rode in on a white horse and sent Edgar Ray Killen to jail for planning the murders—as 1960s evidence indicated—that still wouldn't make me proud of my home. Frankly, I didn't think the people of Philadelphia had it in them to say what I—and I believe many other next- and next-next generation Mississippians of all races—need to near: The murders were wrong. We're sorry. It won't ever happen again on our soil, so help us God.
But they said it May 26, 2004.
A coalition of Neshoba Countians—whites, blacks, Choctaws—stood together and said it for us all—we are sorry for those murders. The Philadelphia Coalition says the town has been silent for too long. "We want to once and all call for justice," said Leroy Clemons, 42, my age. The black casino worker, the head of the local NAACP, stood side-by-side with the white newspaper editor Jim Prince, 40, a protégé that Stanley Dearman taught well—and, word has it, a Republican. If so, he's a Republican who knows better than to play to Mississippians' worst racial instincts. Prince and Clemons and the rest are playing to our best.
These two men, my contemporaries, my new heroes, must know that prosecutions may not happen—we can pray they will—but something even more miraculous is afoot: The healing has begun. With any luck, that means that the next-next-next generation is going to be very proud of our hometown.
At this year's 40th anniversary service on June 20, buses will take attendees between food, fellowship and memorial services at the Neshoba County Coliseum and Mt. Zion Methodist Church. See http://neshobajustice.com for details.