Today is 21 June 2012, 48 years to the day that Michael Schwerner took James Chaney and Andrew Goodman with him on a visit to the burned out shell of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Longdale, Neshoba County, Mississippi. Very late that night they were murdered out on Rock Cut Road, outside Philadelphia, Mississippi.
by Charlie Leck
I wrote this blog last Thursday and, because I was so busy all week here in
Mississippi, I am posting it only today; yet it’s contents are still important to all of
you who love justice and desire it be available for all human beings everywhere.
[21 June 2012, Meridian Mississippi]
I’m sitting in a very modest motel room, thinking about the emotions I felt when I arrived at Mount Zion Methodist Church this afternoon. I was slightly shocked by my urge to cry when I saw and read the big, bronze sign out in front of the church. They tugged at me (these emotions) and they pushed me to follow the journey that the three young civil rights workers made that day – from here to the spot where they were murdered. I would do it all by myself and at whatever pace I wanted.
Michael Schwerner had just returned to Meridian from the University of Ohio, where college students had undergone a week of training for the trip they would make to Mississippi, to work on the Voter Registration Project. Schwerner worked out of the COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) office in Meridian and he brought back with him from Ohio, Andrew Goodman, a young college student from Manhattan. Goodman was going to assist Schwerner with his work in setting up Freedom Schools and getting black citizens properly registered to vote.
James Cheney, a local black student from Meridian and Schwerner’s loyal and hard working assistant, had made the trip to Ohio and came back to Meridian with him and Goodman. Chaney had been working for Schwerner for several months. Schwerner’s wife, Rita, greeted them upon their arrival and had bad news for Michael. She told her husband that members of the Klan had burned down a church up in Longdale, where one of the Freedom Schools had been established. Though it was a Sunday afternoon and he had been driving most of the day, Michael took the two young guys with him in his ‘63 Fairlane stationwagon and they headed out on the 45 mile drive to Longdale. They wanted to consol the residents of the tiny area and get some information about the burning. It was, mind you, Andrew Goodman’s first day on the job.
I was, while the three young men drove up toward Longdale, aboard a train bound for Canton, Mississippi. I’ve written about my trip before – on several of these blogs – and about the lack of justice that has surrounded these murders.
At about the time my train (the City of New Orleans) was rolling through the darkness toward Memphis, the three young men were sitting in a jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They’d been stopped on their journey back to Meridian that afternoon for some bogus reason by a deputy county sheriff who decided to hold the three in the local jail until well after dark so that a group of Klan members would have time to plan their murders.
Late that night, Michael, James and Andrew were released from the jail in Philadelphia and sent on their way; however, about 15 miles before they would have arrived back in Meridian, a police car stopped them along Highway 19. Some Klan members, driving pickup trucks, joined the policeman at the stop. One of the Klan took over the steering wheel of the Fairlane and the three civil rights workers were put in the back of a police car and driven back into a very deserted area, on an old, rough, gravel road. The locals knew it as Rock Cut Road. There they were taken from their vehicle, lined up along a ditch at the side of the road and shot to death, one by one.
Before the sun rose, the bodies were hauled to a farm reservoir, just southwest of Philadelphia, and they were buried there by a bulldozer operator. Michael’s stationwagon was driven into a soupy swamp, where it was set afire and then sank nearly out of sight.
At dawn, my train was nearing the station in Canton. I had sat through the night, staring out the window into the dark Mississippi night, wondering what was ahead of me.
Now, 48 years later, I drove away from the church in Longdale and headed up the country road toward Highway 16 outside of Philadelphia. When I arrived at the stop sign at Highway 16, Philadelphia lay off to my right (west). An alternate and more popular route to Meridian is in the other direction, but the road is more isolated and darker than the highway. That may be why the young guys chose to go through Philadelphia, fatefully to be stopped and detained long enough to put the plan for their deaths together.
So today, I turned right into Philadelphia as well. I found the likely spot where the old jail was – near the Neshoba County courthouse – and I drove from there, as the three young men would have, over to Highway 19 and then south toward Meridian. I looked for likely businesses and buildings that might have stood there 48 years ago. There weren’t many. I tried to figure out the likely stopping point where the police would have pulled them over – just before they crossed the line out of Neshoba County. I followed the likely back road they would have been taken over and then I came upon the spot on Rock Cut Road (now called County Road 515) that I had visited four years ago. There, I stopped my car and climbed out.
Here, on that bank, above a deep ditch – while I stared out through my train’s window into the dark, dark night on June 21, 1964 – Michael, James and Andrew were shot down by a group of locals – some of which had no understanding of the origins of all this hatred they carried.
My legs weakened as I stood there. I wanted to climb down into the ditch and up to the top of the bank on the other side of it, as they did, but my legs wouldn’t move. I trembled and felt very ill. I was wracked with rage. In quiet sadness, I drove my car back out to the highway and only then saw that it had been renamed (the Cheney, Goodman, Schwerner Memorial Highway). I drove back to Philadelphia and found Hwy 21 and took it southwest until I found the pond where the killers buried the bodies in its big banks in the dark, dark night. The property is owned by millionaire Ollen Burrage and the setting looks far too beautiful for my likes. It is difficult to imagine that something so ugly was done here, but that was nearly 50 years ago. Burrage, certainly in on the crime, is an old man now and it's said he scoffs at those who seek justice, knowing he fully got away with his participation in the crime -- as did so many, many members of the Klan.
Slowly, I drove the 35 miles back to Meridian and up to my motel. I sat silently here in front of this keyboard and typed away as my anger and grief subsided.
Tomorrow we will memorialize this event again. I’ve been asked to speak. I have a speech, all prepared and sitting in my briefcase, but it is inadequate. I call my speech, quoting from the pledge of allegiance, With Liberty and Justice for All. ‘Tis a shallow promise. Justice here in Mississippi – remains unaccomplished.
Why no justice? It has been so many years. So many men were involved. Two confessed and named names. Yet, only one fellow was convicted and sent away for man-slaughter.
There are still a half dozen of the murderers alive and walking free. Soon they, like the others, will die as free men from natural causes. And also soon there will be none of us left. The killers, the civil rights workers, the FBI agents who rushed here, the local police who seemed only to pretend to work on the case and the families of those three boys soon will all be gone. [Afterthought on 25 June 2112: So too, the folks who put on this annual memorialization are aging now, consumed also with bitterness, rage and, possibly, paranoia; and the events of the weekend have missed a beat here and there this year and I wonder if it is worth ever coming back again.] I think it is time for me, too, to just let go and get on with other things of importance.
James, Andrew, Michael, I am not abandoning you. I will always carry this grief for you. I pray you will always be remembered as great heroes of the civil rights movement.
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