Rebecca Woodham brought her eight-year-old son from Brundidge, Ala. to Philadelphia so he could “understand” the sacrifices three young men made half a lifetime before he was ever born.

“I wanted him to be here to understand. I wanted him to remember what happened. I wanted him to know that their lives were important,” said the 30-year-old Auburn University history student who’s completing her doctoral dissertation on the life of William Bradford Huie, author of “Three Lives for Mississippi.”

Woodham said while retracing the steps Huie took to research his definitive book on the Philadelphia murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, she discovered individuals “who defy the worst stereotypes of Mississippi.”

She recalls the conversations she had with Stanley Dearman, former editor and publisher of the Neshoba Democrat, describing him as “such a kind, wonderful spirit.”

Woodham said she can’t forget a comment Dearman made that there hasn’t been a day since June 1964 that he did not think about the three civil rights workers.

“I can see how that’s true because this is where it happened. Everything’s got to remind you of it,” she said.

Woodham celebrated Sunday as an opportunity to meet face-to-face some of the soul-encouraging people like Dearman who she had interviewed during her research project. She said the pilgrimage to Philadelphia for the 40th anniversary commemoration was also an appropriate opportunity to confront some disturbing issues as well.

“I needed to come here for myself too,” she said, adding that she hoped the commemoration service would bring her some solace.

Since beginning her doctoral research, Woodham said, she’s been unable to erase the haunting memory of the three slain civil rights workers’ faces as portrayed on the missing posters distributed by the FBI after their June 21 disappearance.

“The faces of those three boys get to you and won’t go away,” she said.

On Saturday, Woodham and her husband and son drove into Neshoba County from Alabama. As they detoured off Interstate 20 through Meridian to drive along Highway 19 and its hilly, roller-coaster approach into Philadelphia, Woodham said she was surprisingly overcome with emotion.

“It’s just a road like any other but I can’t believe how it affected me,” she said. “I was overcome, I have to admit. My husband was driving and he kept asking me if we were on the right road. I couldn’t say anything.”

When their car turned off the blacktopped two-lane highway onto a narrow dirt road where the three young men were murdered,
Woodham said she could only sit quietly and let her surroundings sink in.

She found herself startled that people live their everyday lives on the same route where something so momentous had transpired.

“I don’t know why, but it seemed almost strange that there were houses there. That people were living on the road,” she said. “I think it’s a shame there isn’t a plaque or monument or something to mark where it happened.”

Even though she knows that Mississippi has changed in the past 40 years, Woodham admitted she was shaken by seeing road signs and other landmarks that she’d previously only read about in published accounts of the murders. Suddenly, she said, descriptions of Mississippi in the 1960s and historians’ accounts of how the Ku Klux Klan had dominated the area came flooding back to her as she drove along the rolling blacktopped highway through Neshoba County into Philadelphia.

“All I know, is that I just had this strange feeling,” she said.

The Philadelphia Coalition and the Philadelphia-Neshoba County Tourism Commission are both addressing the marker issue.