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Gary Younge
Mississippi burns as dark history finally catches up

As the sun set on the last century Mr Posey's assumption about the value of black life held true in his home town. And when Edgar Ray Killen goes on trial on Monday for the murder of three young civil rights activists more than 40 years ago, history will catch up with Philadelphia.

On June 21 1964, three young civil rights activists - James Chaney, 21, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, - were abducted just outside Philadelphia. They were part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a civil rights initiative to bring young black and white activists to the Deep South to register African-American voters. Goodman and Schwerner were white; Chaney was black.

In an incident made famous in the film Mississippi Burning, starring Gene Hackman, they went to investigate the burning of a black church nearby. Their car was stopped by the deputy sheriff, Cecil Price, and they were taken to jail, ostensibly in connection with speeding charges. Price, who has since died, used the time to call Ku Klux Klan members. When the activists were released later that night the posse of klansmen followed them, murdered them and buried them in a nearby field. The prosecution will allege Mr Killen led the gang.

At about three o'clock Mr Posey, who had become the town's first white member of the civil rights organisation NAACP, got a call. "They said, 'We took care of three of your friends tonight, you're next.' And hung up. Well I thought it was Edgar Ray Killen but you can't see over a telephone."

In 1967, 18 men were prosecuted on conspiracy charges; seven were convicted but none served longer than six years. Among those who walked free without a day behind bars was Mr Killen, the beneficiary of a hung jury, thanks to one juror who could not bring herself to convict a preacher.

The case was reopened in 1999 after Sam Bowers, the former imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who was already in jail for a racist murder, told a state archivist that he had thwarted justice in the Philadelphia case. His confessions provided momentum for reopening the case. That led to Mr Killen's arrest, on murder as opposed to the conspiracy charges he faced in 1967. In a 1999 interview with the Clarion-Ledger newspaper, Mr Killen claimed he was at a wake when the murders occurred. He also denied being a member of the klan.

At Peggy's, a soul food restaurant just off the main square, the trial has gone from taboo to the subject of frequent debate. "For 20 or 30 years nobody really talked about it and then, boom," said Anne, 24, a white waitress. Anne grew up in Union, 15 miles away, but says she knew nothing about the murders until some months ago when she saw Mississippi Burning. "It just about tore my heart out. If he did it, he deserves to be punished, that's only right. But I don't think they should have brought it back up. It is going to cause more problems. A lot has changed since then."

Hope Jones, a 25-year-old African-American teacher, could not disagree more. "We just want to see justice done," she says. "If he's innocent, fine, but we want whoever did it. This could turn ugly ... it could be a racial thing, but it's not. White people should want justice also."

Philadelphia is a small town - 7,300 people, just over half of whom are white, just under half black and the rest Choctaw Indian. Its grim history put it on the map, but the faded shop fronts and low income levels suggest economics has been doing its best to wipe it off again.

A lot has changed here since 1964. One of the largest employers is now the Choctaws, who own two large casinos just out of town. But a lot has remained the same. The klan still marches here every year. When I stopped to ask directions at a house with the 10 commandments on its front lawn, two elderly white people threatened to shoot me while another went for his gun.

A few white people have changed sides. Jim Prince, the editor of the Neshoba Democrat, came to see that the town could not move on without some resolution. Philadelphia would benefit because the trial would be the "outcome of doing the right thing, there would be some vindication, some redemption, some soul cleansing".

But there is also a financial motive. At the Philadelphia chamber of commerce you can get a glossy pamphlet offering a driving tour of the key sites related to the murders. "I tell people if they can't be behind the call for justice because it's the right thing to do then they need to do it because it's good for business," says Mr Prince.

Some fear that the trial may be symbolic - those familiar with the case say that at least seven others who were involved in the murders are still alive but not standing trial. "This is going to be a whitewash," Ben Chaney, the late James's younger brother, told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. "They are going to use the most unrepentant racist as the scapegoat, leave the others alone because they are more powerful, more wealthy and more influential, and then move on."

Others believe the symbolism may be the point. "[Killen] is a symbol," says Carolyn Goodman, the 89-year-old mother of Andrew Goodman. "This is not just about one man. It's a symbol of what this country stands for. Whether it is a country of laws or something else, Bush or no Bush."

Missing here always meant dead

I still remember the lump I felt in my throat that June evening in 1964 when news came through that one black and two white civil rights workers had gone missing in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

I was with a dozen white students who had arrived the previous evening in a wooden house in the black section of Vicksburg, on the western edge of what was known as the United States' cruellest and most benighted state.

Our team leader was a young black school-leaver. We were billeted with a single mother of five children, and in her oversized shack we were to sleep on the floor and set up the headquarters of the local "freedom project".

Like Andrew Goodman, one of the missing men, we were the advance party of about 800 volunteers for the Freedom Summer. The project's aim was to use our white skins - we hoped - to restrain the violence of the ruling groups who were preventing the majority from asserting their rights.

Our task was to set up and run "freedom schools" for adults who could not read and write, and help black people to register to vote.

The authorities gave black Americans discriminatory tests, threatened to cut off their welfare benefits or used outright force to frighten them from going to the courthouse to get on the voters' roll.

White we may have been, but we were also green as hell. We expected violence, but had no real conception of the threat. On the drive to Vicksburg as the light faded, the Spanish moss hanging from branches like giant cobwebs and the ubiquitous creeper known as kudzu which seemed to swallow the trees made you feel the place was haunted.

A shotgun was strapped across the back window of every pick-up truck you saw, at least if the driver was white.

So, on our first full day in the state, the news that their white skins had not saved two of our colleagues was terrifying. We had little doubt they were dead. Missing in Mississippi always meant dead.

Although it took several weeks for the FBI to discover their bodies, the delay was no surprise. The sheriffs, the state troopers, the police were all members of the Ku Klux Klan, we assumed.

Vicksburg sat astride what passed for a heritage trail. The town tried to project itself as marginally more civilised than red-neck country, but people gave us glares of cold hatred when we walked with black people on the street.

If trials of octogenarians still help to bring justice for the families of the victims, so be it. They are a reminder that Mississippi has only changed in parts, and much remains to do.
Jonathan Steele

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