Justice call ‘reshaping Neshoba legacy’
Wednesday, June 16, 2004 5:01 AM
A broad-based group of citizens and community leaders, including state and local elected officials, are to gather at the Neshoba County Coliseum on Sunday for an hour-long program to publicly acknowledge the murders and celebrate the lives of three civil rights workers ambushed here in 1964 by the Ku Klux Klan.
A memorial service will follow at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in the Longdale community.
Former Gov. William F. Winter will keynote the 2 p.m., coliseum event where Neshoba County citizens are encouraged to bring their families.
A catfish lunch will be available starting at noon along with Choctaw fry bread.
The Philadelphia Coalition, a 30-member multi-racial task force, is coordinating the event which has drawn support from city, county and business leaders who last month all approved resolutions seeking justice.
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians issued a statement of support for the coalition.
Three days after the call for justice by leaders here, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said he was asking the U.S. Justice Department for help, a move some believe could lead to new evidence in a case that has drawn worldwide attention and brought disrepute on Neshoba County for 40 years.
The call for justice has generated a great deal of interest, especially among the national and statewide media.
Syndicated columnist William Raspberry of The Washington Post on Monday wrote that Philadelphia is transforming its dark legacy and might be a model for the nation.
National Public Radio has an eight-minute segment about the coalition’s efforts scheduled on its afternoon news program “All Things Considered” on Thursday.
CNN was scheduled to be in Philadelphia today conducting interviews. Reporters from The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Vicksburg Post, among others, have either already done stories or are planning additional coverage.
WTVA in Tupelo is planning a series on Neshoba County starting Friday and running through Monday on its 6 p.m., newscast.
The acknowledgment by community leaders has special meaning to coalition member Elsie Kirksey.
“The purpose this year is for justice. This year is just different,” she said, welcoming the broad-based community involvement.
She was amazed by the number of volunteers assisting with the event at the coliseum and the church, most especially with a mass choir she’s helping to organize.
“Even on Father’s Day, people have been more than glad to help,” she said.
Children age 10 to young adults age 25 are participating in the choir and members are still needed, she said. (Those interested should call 601-656-1000.)
For the first time, Kirksey said, people in the community were talking freely about the murders and that has been described some as a “soul cleansing” experience.
“That’s different than in the past,” she said, recalling how fellow coalition members shared personnel testimonies and expressed shame for what happened here.
While she had long felt race relations had improved in the community, Kirksey, telecommunications coordinator at the Philadelphia Police Department, said it was rewarding to hear people “talk from their hearts.”
“There’s always going to be a few here that are negative,” she said, “and that’s disheartening but then you hear all the positive input which is good.”
Coalition member Don Kilgore, a Philadelphia attorney, said recent talk of reopening the case has been positive for Neshoba County.
“I think the activities have brought positive coverage to this area and I think that benefits not only Neshoba County but all of Mississippi,” said Kilgore, who chaired the task force’s committee on justice.
Kilgore said the business and religious communities as well as the general public have come together to plan the commemoration.
Kirksey said the coalition and Mt. Zion leaders were excited and pleased with the program planned at both the coliseum and at the church.
Activities will be in two parts:
• An hour-long, community-wide program at 2 p.m., at the Neshoba County Coliseum.
• A 4 p.m., memorial service is planned at Mt. Zion.
The public is invited to attend the one-hour ceremony that will include a keynote address by former Gov. Winter.
The memorial service will be limited but shown via closed-circuit at the coliseum.
The commemoration theme is Recognition, resolution, redemption: Uniting for justice.
Author Alice Walker will speak at the coliseum as well as Philadelphia native Dick Molpus, the former Secretary of State who in 1989 offered an apology to the families of the slain men.
The Rev. Bishop Clay F. Lee will deliver a message at the memorial service.
He was senior minister of First United Methodist Church in Philadelphia in 1964 and was outspoken against the murders. For his stance Lee was labeled as, among other things, a Communist.
At Mt. Zion, family members of the slain men and others will also speak.
The service will be inside the church which can accommodate about 300 people.
Planning the commemoration has been a learning experience for Cyrus Ben, 26.
Ben said he was aware of the murders but learned more about the men and their role in the civil rights movement.
“The role of the coalition is to bring out the pros of what happened. These men did a lot of great things. It was a sad ending for their lives but a great beginning for others,” Ben said.
Kirksey hopes this year’s commemoration will send a message to the younger generation who might not be aware of the struggles made to secure the personal freedoms they enjoy today. Especially voting rights for African Americans and the right to be educated in integrated classrooms.
“That didn’t happen by chance,” she said. “They don’t really understand that people actually lost their lives so everybody can be equal. If it’s handed to you, you don’t tend to appreciate it like you should. It’s not their fault. They just need to be educated more on it.”
Kirksey said the coalition had worked hard planning the program.
“We just hope it’s a big success and everybody will come out and attend.”
On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan after the trio came to Neshoba County to investigate the burning of the Mt. Zion church.
Chaney, a 21-year-old black man from Mississippi, and Goodman, 20, and Schwerner, 24, both white men from New York City, were part of the “Freedom Summer” program in Mississippi in which young civil rights workers organized voter education and registration campaigns.
Forty-four days after they disappeared, their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam. They had been beaten and shot.
The state of Mississippi never brought murder charges.
Ben Chaney, the brother of James Chaney, will lead a bus caravan embarking on a 20-stop tour beginning in New York City today to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the slayings.
Chaney, who heads the James Earl Chaney Foundation, a civil rights group, said the trip would include the events in Philadelphia.