PRINCE/ White trash and dusty streets
Wednesday, June 8, 2005 1:00 PM
Reporters from around the world have come here in more frequency these last weeks and months, most confessing when pressed that they are surprised, even stunned, at how progressive Philadelphia is.
These reporters — the Swedes, the Germans, the Canadians, the French, the Austrians, CNN, Nightline — are preparing for a triple murder trial involving one of the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era, a turning point in American history that occurred right here.
Two young white men from New York and a black man from Meridian were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan on June 21, 1964, in Neshoba County as they sought to help African Americans register to vote.
Reporters have been coming for 40 years, but perceptions are finally changing.
A Norwegian radio reporter said last week he’d expected to find shacks along the dusty main road into town and the streets flush with “white trash.”
Those were images, he confessed, of Hollywood’s making — until he saw for himself first-hand. He pledged to clarify that image in his report.
Such has been the case with others who struck out for Philadelphia, Mississippi, for the first time believing they were headed to a Third World country only to find a delightful, charming little town.
The editor of The Neshoba Democrat is one of the first persons these reporters seek out. They came to talk to Stanley Dearman (still do) and to Jack Tannehill before him.
Since the indictment of Edgar Ray Killen in January there have been so many reporters that I can’t possibly keep track of all the conversations and interviews.
The bigger networks and personalities have producers call ahead and conduct an interview. Then some of the same questions are asked again when they get here.
I try to speak candidly and honestly so hopefully I don’t have to worry if what I say today is what I said yesterday or what I will say tomorrow.
My story is basically the same:
What happened here 40 years ago is despicable and a majority of the people here never condoned murder. We have lived with the negative images — some of us all of our lives — and resent the mischaracterizations.
But murder is murder and for good and obvious reasons there is no statute of limitations. We embrace the call for justice and believe that Mr. Killen deserves a fair trial.
Dearman put a face on the civil rights workers in 1989 when he interviewed Andrew Goodman’s mother Carolyn. Andy was athletic and loved the dramatic arts. From a privileged background, he was seeking that summer to help blacks in Mississippi register to vote. He was a peacemaker, his mother said.
That clean-cut, handsome image of Goodman contrasts sharply with the view many held of the civil rights workers who came that summer.
When a group of citizens got together last year to plan the 40th anniversary commemoration of the deaths it became obvious that acknowledgement was as important as anything.
The appearance of Gov. Haley Barbour at the commemoration last June was highly encouraging to the local black community and affirmed the acknowledgement.
The Philadelphia Coalition, the 30-member, multi-ethnic group that planned the commemoration and led the local call for justice, has propelled this community forward toward better understanding among the races.
Many white people have come to learn that for their black friends the trio’s demise was a turning point, the Pearl Harbor of the civil rights movement, as James Young, the past president of the Board of Supervisors and who is black, has said.
Whites have largely failed to recognize until now that significance. The world looks at Neshoba County as a turning point in history. We should embrace that opportunity.
We will never fully erase the stain of these murders and the Killen trial should not be viewed as a way to simply clear our name.
Continuing to embrace our cultural heritage and telling others about what we have lived is of significant importance. The world sees hope in the genuine change here.
Reliving this terrible part of our history that for so long has been repressed is going to be difficult these next weeks and the media spotlight excruciating, but atonement in the form of justice is necessary to move forward.
We can declare with confidence that this community has done the right thing by once and for all adjudicating this old case. Let justice run its course. We’ll live with the verdict — whatever the outcome.