A Trip Back Home for a Lesson in Justice
When I was 7 years old, Mississippi's Neshoba County scared me to death. The newspaper images of the Freedom Summer murders of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner wrapped around my imagination in the summer of 1964. The hold these images kept was so tight that I carried the pictures in my mind for 40 years: the burned-out station wagon, the grimacing county sheriff with a jaw full of tobacco, the tearful face of Ben Chaney at his brother's funeral, and those three young faces, frozen in time on an FBI poster.
A different flood of thoughts came into my mind as I read of the arrest of Edgar Ray Killen, a 79-year-old preacher who was charged last week with the murder of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. There is no longer a confused 7-year-old boy inside me who carries around images of the Freedom Summer murders. That boy is all grown up now. Like me, Killen and the other suspects who may be arrested in the case are older. Unlike me, some of them are quite frail. But age and fragility does not make me have any sympathy for whoever killed these three victims. The man the boy grew into just wants justice to be done.
I never knew Chaney, Schwerner or Goodman, and I never knew their families. Yet I feel as if I know them because they permeated my life when I was growing up in Mississippi, especially a sketch of the earthen dam where they were buried that appeared on the front page of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson in August 1964. Years later, as I researched my own family's links to Mississippi's civil-rights era spy agency, the State Sovereignty Commission, they came back into my consciousness even more clearly. I read many of the commission's investigations of the three voter-registration volunteers' comings and goings, including the list that included the license plate number of the Ford station wagon they were driving. All of this was information that was turned over to local law enforcement and allegedly used by Edgar Ray Killen and others to track them down and murder them.
My family had a safe haven from all of Mississippi's mayhem. Perhaps an element of survivor's guilt drew me back there this past spring to visit the places where Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner spent their final days: the Neshoba County jail, Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, and the spot where they are believed to have been murdered. The act of visiting these places without feeling terror helped lift the childhood fears I had held for much of my life. Going to Neshoba County even made me decide that my children should know what happened in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. Like me, perhaps they would benefit from visiting this place and learn from what happened there. But more than anything, I wanted my children to understand what happened in Mississippi 40 years ago, how it transformed my life and theirs.
So this past June I took two of my three children to Mt. Zion for a memorial service for the three civil rights workers. Mt. Zion is the very same church the Ku Klux Klan burned 40 years ago to draw Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner to Neshoba County. On the grounds of the church we swayed together as the choir sang "Lift E'vry Voice and Sing" and listened to more speeches and songs, culminating in the laying of a wreath by the mother of Andrew Goodman at a memorial to her son and the other two slain men.
After we left Mt. Zion and began to make our way back to Washington, I asked my children, Aidan and Delaney, to share with me their impression of the day. Aidan chose to put his thoughts in writing.
"I learned many things at the Freedom Summer memorial service. One thing [that I learned most about] was not to ignore history. In many of the speeches at the memorial service, the people said not to ignore history. This memorial service is the start of remembering the dark parts of Mississippi's past."
I certainly could not argue with Aidan's insights. The reason we were in Philadelphia that day was because the town was just beginning to embrace the summer of 1964 as part of its history. Delaney's observations, however, reminded me of being 7 years old: "I learned that you don't have to be afraid in Mississippi anymore." It thrilled me to hear from my daughter that she did not have to harbor the same fears I had when I was her age.
Our memories from childhood often shape and define the way we view the world as adults. As years pass, historic events become woven into our personal histories. The Freedom Summer murders are forever seared in my memory and for a long time shaped my relationship with my home state. But now, God willing, part of my children's history will be memories of justice being done in the Freedom Summer murder case. And you can't ignore history.
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