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.