Our day started at the Rosa Parks Museum operated by Troy University. Most of the tour guides in Montgomery greet you at the first of their talk and say “Welcome to the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.”
With all the wonderful people who did so many significant things in the struggle against segregation, I asked, why do Montgomerians think their home is the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement? Their answer: Rosa Parks. Enough said.
On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks, age 42, refused to obey bus driver James Blake’s order that she give up her seat to make room for a white passenger – which at that time was a local city ordinance that blacks would have to give up their seats to let whites sit in the front of the bus. (In photo, the bus stop where Rosa Parks boarded.)
Parks’ act of defiance became an important symbol of the modern Civil Rights Movement, and Parks became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation. It also launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a watershed moment in the struggle to gain equal rights for all Americans.
From Montgomery we headed to Philadelphia, Mississippi, in Neshoba County to meet with Jewell McDonald at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church (photo left). We also got to meet Fenton DeWeese, a member of the Philadelphia Coalition and my daughter’s father-in-law’s first cousin (that small world thing.) If you have seen the movie “Mississippi Burning,” you may know the Hollywood version of the story.
On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights workers were murdered in Neshoba County. The trio had come here to investigate the burning of the Mt. Zion Methodist Church in the Longdale community off of Mississippi 16 east. The night the church was burned, parishioners were beaten, some severely – including Mrs. McDonald’s mother and father.
The murders of Michael Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20, were part of a plot hatched by the Lauderdale County unit of the Ku Klux Klan and carried out by members of the Neshoba County unit. The civil rights workers were part of a broader national movement that hoped to begin a voter registration drive in the area, part of the Mississippi Summer Project that became known as Freedom Summer.
On June 20, 2004, the Philadelphia Coalition and the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church hosted a 40th anniversary memorial for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. At the 2 p.m. service at the Neshoba County Coliseum, the Coalition read its resolution calling for justice in the case:
Forty years ago, on June 21, 1964, three young men, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered in Neshoba County by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The state of Mississippi has never brought criminal indictments against anyone for these murders – an act of omission of historic significance. There is, for good and obvious reasons, no statute of limitations on murder. This principle of law holds that anyone who takes the life of another person for any reason not provided by law is never immune from prosecution, no matter how remote in time.
With firm resolve and strong belief in the rule of law, we call on the Neshoba County District Attorney, the state Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice to make every effort to seek justice in this case. We deplore the possibility that history will record that the state of Mississippi, and this community in particular, did not make a good faith effort to do its duty.
We state candidly and with deep regret that some of our own citizens, including local and state law enforcement officers, were involved in the planning and execution of these murders. We are also cognizant of the shameful involvement and interference of state government, including actions of the State Sovereignty Commission, in thwarting justice in this case.
Finally, we wish to say to the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, that we are profoundly sorry for what was done in this community to your loved ones. And we are mindful of our responsibility as citizens to call on the authorities to make an effort to work for justice in this case. Continued failure to do so will only further compound the wrong.
We, the undersigned, call on those in authority to use every available resource and do all things necessary to bring about a just resolution to this case.
In 2005, a Neshoba County jury found Edgar Ray Killen guilty in the brutal deaths of civil rights activists. That trial, and the community organizing that helped prompt it, were important steps toward justice and reconciliation. In 2006, the group successfully lobbied for a bill establishing a law that requires Civil Rights history to be taught in all public schools.
The great work of the Philadelphia Coalition continues today and is helping the local community, the state of Mississippi and maybe even the country begin to heal after decades of segregation and suffering.