Forty-five years ago Sunday, three young Americans working to gain full rights of citizenship for African-Americans in Mississippi were mutilated and executed in rural Neshoba County by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner did nothing wrong.
They challenged everything that was wrong about race in Mississippi, and they paid the ultimate price seeking justice for people to whom justice had always been denied.
Justice is incomplete in their case, even after 45 years. No none has been convicted of murder, but it is obvious that one or more people killed them.
Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner ironically were slain on Father’s Day – the same observance planned by many, perhaps most families in our state on Sunday as a token of love and devotion.
The bodies of the three were recovered from an earthen dam of a farm pond, thanks to an informant who tipped authorities. Only a cause rooted in perversity could seek to justify the shedding of innocent blood.
Their deaths, in particular, quickened the consciences of many people in Mississippi and nationwide.
Many whose hearts and minds were jolted into a new reality because of the Philadelphia murders – especially in Mississippi – were people of faith grounded in basic decency, kindness and compassion but previously held captive by tradition, culture, family pressure, and outright fear of being the first to change.
Many found the courage of their convictions in the same Bible and in the same faith stream claimed by Ku Klux Klan members, but they listened and heard differently and truthfully, some dropping everything previously held dear to follow a new and better way.
In a sense, it was a conversion like that exerienced by those who took up their crosses and followed Jesus.
The esteemed Georgia congressman, John Lewis, then 25, was not in Philadelphia, but he was at the bridge in Selma less than year later when peaceful marchers for voting rights were attacked with dogs, tear gas and clubs. Lewis, who had surrendered his life to Christ and was ordained at 18 a minister of the Gospel, speaks plainly about God’s call to the cause.
“Without religion – without the example of Christ, who sacrificed for others – as the foundation of the movement, it would have been impossible for us to endure the setbacks, and to hope, and to go on,” Lewis recalls. “It was religion that got us on the buses for the Freedom Rides; we were in Selma that day because of our faith.”
Some like to think of Philadelphia and Selma as dim memories, but they are impossible to ignore or forget. Those places and events shaped who we are and who we need to become.
The annual memorial service at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, which was burned on June 16, 1964, because its members had stood for human rights, begins at 3 p.m. Sunday on County Road 747 off Mississippi 16 near Philadelphia. James Young, Philadelphia’s first African-American mayor, will speak. All are welcome.
Call Jewel McDonald (601-656-8277) or Elsie Kirksey (601-656-8277) for additional information.
NEMS Daily Journal