Justice for History’s Sake

By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

This past weekend nearly 1,800 Mississippians and other Americans gathered in Philadelphia, Mississippi at two ceremonies to speak to each other and call forward, as one said, the tide of justice.
They gathered because forty years ago, on the night of June 21, 1964, a terrible wrong was done there.

On that night, three young men—one, African-American and a native Mississippian; the two others, white and Jewish from New York, united by their belief that all Americans deserved a full measure of citizenship—disappeared into History.

They were individuals, with their own names and their own pasts—James Chaney, Michael (Mickey) Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. But they shared a cruel fate. They were stalked, kidnapped and murdered just outside Philadelphia, in rural Neshoba County by men who thought that if they shed enough blood they could repel the tide of History.

Their killers are thought to have numbered at least eighteen and have included town law officials as well as members of the Ku Klux Klan. Seven Klan members were later convicted of federal civil rights violations and sentenced to from three to ten years in prison.
No one has ever been charged with their murders.

However, recently Jim Hood, the state's attorney, has sought federal assistance in re-opening the investigation of the killings, and the United States Attorney's Office for Mississippi has said it's reviewing the request.

I hope the case is re-opened. As Rep. John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, who himself played a prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement, pointed out at the ceremonies, pursuing the wrongdoers is not just a matter of redressing individual crimes. "It's important,"he said, "that justice be done for history's sake."

In Philadelphia a gathering sponsored by the multiracial Philadelphia Coalition and held at the Neshoba County Coliseum, was the first time the state and the town have officially marked the sad anniversary.

The Mount Zion United Methodist Church, whose 1964 burning by the Klan had prompted Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner's trip to the county, has held a ceremony every year since the crime occurred.

As we come closer to our annual July 4th celebration of America's long-declared commitment to equality and justice for all—and do so amid the raging of wars beyond our shores—it's vital to remember not only our good fortune.

It's as important to remember how great in America's past were the gaps between its rhetoric and its practices—and the price some paid to close them.

The price the three civil rights workers paid was dear. The news of their disappearance immediately provoked an almost palpable sense of foreboding within the Movement, and among many black Americans, who were all too aware of Mississippi's reputation as a place of violent racial extremism.

Even as segregationists jeered that the activists' disappearance was a hoax to gain publicity for the Movement—their buried bodies would not be found for 44 days—few decent people doubted what had happened.

Indeed, all through the spring of 1964, warnings of an explosion of violence in Mississippi had been coming from many quarters. The nationally-syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop, writing from Washington, warned that "a very great storm is gathering—and may break very soon indeed—[there] … The southern half of Mississippi … has been powerfully reinvaded by the Ku Klux Klan …"

That's because it was apparent by early 1964 that the Civil Rights Movement itself was building to a crescendo. The shocking assassination of President John F. Kennedy the previous November had given a powerful impetus to what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which Kennedy had endorsed. President Lyndon Baines Johnson would sign the Act that July 2, two weeks after Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman disappeared.

Secondly, Mississippi civil rights activists had stepped up their challenges to the state's rigid adherence to white-supremacist practices and had announced a "Freedom Summer"voter registration campaign designed to destroy segregationists' political power, a prospect which infuriated the Klan and its supporters.

Some may want to dismiss the marking of this sad anniversary as irrelevant to our own time.

Let them speak to the black, white and Choctaw Mississippians who Sunday spoke of remembering the whole past in order to build a future of integrity and reconciliation.

And let them recall another commemoration earlier this month—of the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion during a war which made the world safe for the expansion of democracy.

The fight to expand freedom within America's borders, and the sacrifices its "soldiers"made, two decades later was no less important—and, like the commemoration of D-Day, is no less worthy of use as inspiration for the work the freedom struggle must now do.

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