Sunday, June 22, 2008

Whatsoever a Man Soweth

Our caravan of cars was headed to the gravesite of James Chaney, to pay respects to him, when, near the cemetery, we passed this home and this flag in its yard.

...he will surely reap!
by Charlie Leck

It was hot yesterday in Mississippi. That must come as startling news. A bright, blue sky covered us from horizon to horizon and the sun had a clear shot at us. And, it was on target, boring down upon us everywhere, causing folks to hunt for whatever shade they could find.We gathered at the Lauderdale County Courthouse in a rally for justice. We were the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and we were joined by a large number of residents of Mississippi who believe justice has not been provided by the state in the gruesome murders of a host of black folks – over 50 slaughters and no indictments.

It was, of course, June 21, and this was the 44th anniversary of the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. No one in the case has ever been tried for their murder by the State of Mississippi even though they have two extraordinary confessions that directly implicate approximately 18 people and indirectly implicate a number of others as coconspirators. [You can read the confessions, word for word, in my blog of 21 January 2008.] One fellow was convicted of manslaughter in the case in 2005 and sentenced to 25 years. Mississippi thinks that’s good enough. It’s difficult to believe that any other state in the nation would allow such injustice.

Between a hundred and two hundred folks gathered for the rally. They were black and white. Spirits were high. The speeches were moving. The music was inspirational and played on our emotions.

It was tough on me when we drove, with the caravan, far out into the countryside to visit the gravesite of James Chaney, the young man from Meridian who was murdered so brutally along with Goodman and Schwerner. As we approached the cemetery, we passed by the home of a man who stood in his yard scowling at us as we passed. In his graying undershirt and faded jeans, he stood under and leaned against a big tree that towered above him. Even from a hundred yards one could see that his eyes were filled with rage and hate – more animal than human. A confederate flag flew from a pole very near where he stood.

Chaney’s tombstone stood elegantly and proudly in the tiny cemetery. A monument noting his mother’s grave was immediately next to his. Even in death, James Chaney cannot rest in peace. A picture of him, that had adorned the monument, was dug out and destroyed. The stone has been broken and knocked down several times and stands now with the aid of steel braces. I could feel the utter inhumanity of man crawling on my flesh as I stood looking at the monument.

We moved on to visit the site of his murder – the place where he and Goodman and Schwerner were gunned down by mad fools in the night. It was on Rock Cut Road, south of Philadelphia. The stories appeared so many places (most accurately in the book, We Are Not Afraid), so you don’t need it repeated here. At the spot where the three young men’s bodies fell, we piled rocks, some that had been brought from states all around the U.S.. I think there was a sense of closure for me – something I have needed for over four decades. I have thought about these three young men thousands of times since 44 years ago today, when I arrived in Canton, Mississippi, to begin my assignment in this civil rights struggle, and heard that they were missing. I have shed a river of tears for them since their bodies were removed from Olin Burrage’s reservoir near Philadelphia. There’s no doubt about his involvement in the murder. The evidence is overwhelming. Yet, Mississippi lets this rich, white man walk free.

At the beginning of day, when we gathered at the Lauderdale County Courthouse, I was struck by the words engraved in giant letters across the front entry: “Whatsoever a man soweth, he will surely reap!” If there is a hell, and if there is a just God, Olen Burrage has hard times acomin’ folks. "Hard times!”

I saw my daughter looking up at the words also. A smirky grin covered her face as she raised her camera and photographed the exclamation point to the lives of men like Burrage and former Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, who still walk free as residents of Philadelphia.
[see correction of this last sentence in comments following]

I worry that there is no such God to reclaim payment from them. Do they lose sleep at night? Do they have nightmares? Do they have any sense of guilt? Can one man kill another totally innocent and beautiful human being and not feel the wrongness of his act?

Has a state, such as Mississippi, got a collective conscience? Will it be two hundred years from now when its legislature passes a resolution of apology and grief over the acts of hate of its former citizens? Why not now, when it would touch gently the wounds of so many of us who have suffered over the horrendous act committed on that dark night 4 decades ago?

It eases no pain, except that in my own heart, that I have held these three young men close to me for these 44 years. They are the great and everlasting heroes of my life and my soul constantly sings songs of praise to them.

It did me good today to see the spot where they fell. It is a sacred place and Mississippi should make it honored and protected land.


  1. I think that Cecil Price was mysteriously killed, after it was rumored that he might be willing to testify in this case.

  2. This reader is correct and apologize. Memory, at my age, is not my strong suit. Thanks.

    Cecil Price, the former Deputy Sheriff of Neshoba County died from some kind of fall that caused serious head injuries. His death was ruled accidental.

    Chas Leck

  3. America needs healing from the legacy of slavery. The National Day of Reconciliation and Healing From the Legacy of Slavery takes place on the "3rd Friday in June" every year during the week of the celebration of Juneteenth in America. The issues raised in "Whatsoever a Man Soweth" are heart and center for the reason why we have the National Juneteenth Black Holocaust "Maafa" Memorial Service that takes place during the National Day of Reconciliation and Healing From the Legacy of Slavery.

    According to Time magazine, "...Juneteenth has been a day of celebration for many African Americans, a de facto second Independence Day commemorating the end of slavery and a first step toward inclusion in the greater American dream. It's a bittersweet holiday, "a time of celebration, but also a time of reflection, healing, and hopefully a time for the country to come together and deal with its slave legacy," says the Rev. Ronald V. Myers, chairman of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. Myers has worked for almost 15 years to get Juneteenth recognized by state legislatures. Currently, a little more than half of U.S. states acknowledge Juneteenth in some form or another, usually on the third Saturday of June."

    We will continue to pray for God to bring healing from the atrocities of our legacy of racial violence, lynching and murder because of racism. What took place in Mississippi still affects us all today.

    We honor our ancestors, Americans of African descent, who heard the news of freedom on the "19th of June", 1865, and celebrated in the streets of Galveston, Texas. "None are free, until all are free!" Juneteenth is the celebration of the end of slavery in America that we have embraced as as African-Americans.

    Juneteenth is America's 2nd Independence Day celebration. 29 states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or state holiday observance, as well as the District of Columbia and the Congress of the United States.

    Together we will see Juneteenth become a national holiday in America!

    Rev. Ronald V. Myers, Sr., M.D.
    National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign
    National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF)
    National Juneteenth Christian Leadership Council (NJCLC)

  4. It nice that Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were brought up in passing.vigilanty law is not the kind of law we need. A jury found him guilty and 25 years for his age equals life.This writers own bigotry is showing, remember we marched so all would not be judged by the color of their skin.

  5. It seems Charles needs to do some work in his own state.

    Minnesota's racial achievement gap is wide and persistent. By junior high nearly half of the state's minority students are testing well below their white counterparts in reading, writing, and math. Poverty, experts say, is one of the most reliable indicators of who will fall into the achievement gap, and minorities are disproportionately represented among the state's poor. They and society pay a high cost for their not doing well in school.

    Seems a case of getting the stick out of your own eye first.

  6. I appreciae Ziba's comments. Yes, I have difficult with this log in my own eye. I'll work on this.

    I'm aware that MN has it's own problems. One of them is not blindness to murders. We do prosecute and rather successfully.

    Please, Schwerner and Goodman were mentioned more than in just passing. Be fair!

    Thanks, though, for the reading.
    Chas Leck

  7. Regardless of any errors, your passion shows through. For that, I thank you for presenting a vision of the day and the time as you experienced it. The movie is in one's head.

    Note: John Gibson passed me your essay. You let us see it through your eyes.