An update from Kim, a Master of Liberal Studies student:
Traveling the deeply forested roads that wind through rural Neshoba County, Miss., it’s easy to imagine that things haven’t changed much since 1964 – but they have.
The congregation rebuilt Mt. Zion Methodist Church after the Ku Klux Klan burned it down in 1964. They rebuilt it again after it burned once more in 1971.
When Jewell McDonald moved back to Neshoba County in 1994, 30 years after the summer the Klan beat her mother nearly to death and murdered three civil rights workers, she thought that the racial attitudes of local white residents had finally begun to change. She joined a multiethnic group of county residents who, in 2004, on the 40th anniversary of the murders, issued a call for justice that resulted in a new investigation.
But it was 2005 – 41 years after the crime – before a local jury finally convicted Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter for his role in a conspiring to kill civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. Back at the time the murders occurred, Mississippi officials refused to prosecute the killers. The U.S. Justice Department charged 18 men with conspiring to deprive the three activists of their civil rights and seven were convicted in the 1960s – though the longest term any of them served was only 10 years.
And no one ever came to trial for the attack on McDonald’s mother.
“My mother later said that some of the men with the group of Klansmen who beat her were National Guardsmen out of Meridian,” McDonald said. “She recognized their rifles.”
FBI agents would take her mother around to stores and other public locations to see if she could ever identify any of her attackers, McDonald recalled. “But she never could.” And nobody ever revealed what someone had to have known.
“Some of the whites were just as afraid as we were,” McDonald said.
McDonald shared her story with SMU’s civil rights pilgrims on Sunday, from the fellowship hall of the twice-rebuilt Mt. Zion church. She apologized for the tears she seemed unable to control as she recalled how her church had agreed to allow Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman to organize a Freedom School there in the summer of 1964 to help prepare black voters for registration – a tough and dangerous job in the Jim Crow South.
Her mother and other church leaders were dragged from their cars and beaten for allowing the civil rights activists to operate out of Mt. Zion. The Klan was looking for Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman the night they arrived by the carloads at the church. McDonald clearly cannot erase the image of her mother and brother when they returned to the house that night: “You could see the blood. They dragged my brother out of the truck and said, ‘Where’s the white people?’ ”
The Klan came back after the beatings and firebombed the church on June 16, 1964. Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were murdered five days later when they arrived in the community to investigate. Their murders provoked national outrage and horror, and proved to be a turning point in focusing the nation on just how far some were willing to go to prevent black Americans from not only exercising the right to vote, but also exercising the basic freedom to live in peace and security.
“The whites in Neshoba County have made a 180-degree turn since 1964,” McDonald says today. “Most of them know what is right.”
The winding road in front of Mt. Zion is different, too, these days – and it’s not just the “Freedom Summer Murders” historical marker staked out in front of the church. What is now a sturdy, paved road was just a dirt strip that turned to impassible, muddy ruts after every rainstorm when longtime Mt. Zion member Obbie Riley was young. He remembers when white people in the county got the roads and black people got the mud, because people who couldn’t vote didn’t have any voice in how the tax dollars were spent. More evidence of change, Riley was elected a county supervisor in 2007.
Riley was just a child during that Freedom Summer, but some images remain clear: “I remember the soldiers searching the fields behind our house for the three missing men.”
Riley sees that paved road as a big symbol. Because people made all those sacrifices 50 years ago, he said, people don’t get basic services like roads based on the color of their skin. The power to vote means politicians have to pay attention to people’s needs regardless of the color of their skin.
“Why was it so important for people to be willing to lose their lives?” he asks. “Because my vote is just as powerful as his or hers. People at Mt. Zion thought having the power to vote was worth almost anything”
But both McDonald and Riley are clearly disturbed that the legacy of voting in Neshoba County is not as strong among black voters as the memories these graying leaders share of the sacrifices made to guarantee that right.
“You would think we blacks here in Neshoba County would be running to the polls!” McDonald said.
“We have voter registration drives,” Riley said. “But there’s a segment in Neshoba County that won’t register because of jury duty.
“Can you imagine how that hurts me?”