Community leaders to issue a call
for justice in 1964 civil rights slayings
Thursday, June 24, 2004 7:41 AM
Community leaders are expected today to issue a call for justice in the unprosecuted 1964 civil rights murders in Neshoba County.
The Philadelphia Coalition, a 30-member, multi-racial task force planning the 40th anniversary commemoration of the slayings, will present the resolution at a 1 p.m., press conference at City Hall.
“With firm resolve and strong belief in the rule of law, we call on the Neshoba County District Attorney, the state Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice to make every effort to seek justice in this case,” the one-page resolution states.
Task force members describe their efforts as emotionally draining yet cleansing and say they are struck by the unity and common bond of such a large and diverse group.
City and county leaders along with the Community Development Partnership are expected to present their own resolutions calling for justice.
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is expected to present a letter of support for the resolutions.
The task force will also announce that the commemoration will take place Sunday, June 20 starting at 2 p.m., at the Neshoba County Coliseum followed by a 4 p.m., memorial service at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church.
The hour-long coliseum event is designed as a community-wide gathering free and open to the public.
Although speakers have not been finalized, former Gov. William F. Winter is expected to keynote the coliseum event, officials said.
At Mt. Zion, family members of the slain men and others will speak.
The service at Mt. Zion will be inside the church, which can accommodate about 300 people.
A live television feed from the church will be broadcast to the coliseum, officials said.
As many as 3,000 people are expected to attend because of the national attention the Neshoba County murders have received and the interest ignited by the successful prosecution of other civil rights-era crimes.
On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan after the trio came to Neshoba County to investigate the burning of the Mt. Zion church.
Forty-four days later their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam.
The state of Mississippi never brought murder charges.
Seven members of the Ku Klux Klan were convicted of federal civil rights violations in the deaths and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three years to 10 years. None of those convicted served more than six years.
The coalition for several months has been working together to plan the commemoration. The task force is wide-ranging in age, gender, race and background.
The resolution goes on to acknowledge the local involvement.
“We state candidly and with deep regret that some of our own citizens, including local and state law enforcement officers, were involved in the planning and execution of these murders,” the resolution says.
And there is an apology to the families of the slain men:
“Finally, we wish to say to the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, that we are profoundly sorry for what was done in this community to your loved ones. And we are mindful of our responsibility as citizens to call on the authorities to make an effort to work for justice in this case. Continued failure to do so will only further compound the wrong.”
Members of the task force include: Leroy Clemons and James E. Prince III, co-chairmen, Marsha Bavetta, Cyrus Ben, Bea Carson, Dawn Lea Chalmers, Janice Coleman, Kenneth Coleman, Stanley Dearman, Fent DeWeese, Wright Griffis, Jennifer Hathorn, Cecil Hooker, Bobbie Jackson, Joe Jordan, Don Kilgore, Elsie Kirksey, Jackie Long, Jewel McDonald, Nettie A. Cox Moore, Guy Nowell, Ivy Owen, Deborah Posey, Ta’Shia Shannon, Arecia Steele, Courtney Tannehill, Eva Tisdale, Tim Tubby, David Vowell, Hon. Rayburn Waddell, Steve Wilkerson and Hon. James Young.
Shannon, 26, an African-American serving on the task force, is a native Neshoba countian who practices law in the Edward A. Williamson Law Firm.
The coalition’s work will help stamp out the stigma attached to Philadelphia, she said.
“We want people to know Philadelphia is not what you see in ‘Mississippi Burning.’”
Ben Chaney, brother of James Chaney, and others were an inspiration to her, she said.
“They told people there was a better way and opened their eyes to a bunch of things. Now 40 years later we have elected officials that are minorities and that are participating at all levels of society. I think we’re moving in a good direction and I want to see if we can get justice in this and keep moving forward.”
Her father Jimmy Shannon was the first black alderman to serve in Philadelphia.
Shannon said it’s been a joy to work with others on the task force and said there’s a real sense of openness.
“In there we’re open,” she said of the meetings. “We express our feelings and I think we’ve come to realize although we all may have ethnic differences we can come together for a common purpose. I think we’ve found a new kind of love and respect for each other.”
She said an acknowledgment of what happened is important to her.
“We don’t only want justice, but just the acknowledgment by our former leaders that what they did was wrong. Then, from that I believe we can have a new respect for each other.”
Dawn Lea Mars Chalmers, 34, a Neshoba County native and downtown gift shop owner, is a member of the task force.
Her second cousin Florence Mars wrote the book “Witness in Philadelphia” that chronicled the murders and the atmosphere in Philadelphia.
Chalmers has always had an interest in the civil rights movement and what happened to “those poor young men who came down here to do what’s right for everyone.”
Her cousin was an influence.
“I’m a real big advocate of equal rights for everyone. I guess Florence started me out and while my parents weren’t as outspoken as Florence they always encouraged me to be fair and question how things had always been.”
The murders have always been a source of guilt for her, Chalmers said. She was born in 1969, five years after the incident, but simply being from Philadelphia has always left her with a sense of shame for what happened in her hometown.
“When I’ve traveled out of Philadelphia and I told people where I was from they would always ask me about it,” she said. “I tended to get on the defensive because I knew not everyone here had those feelings the majority of the nation automatically thought we had. I always felt the situation was not handled properly.”
She said she thought while the act itself was horrible, the portrait painted by the national media was unjust. “It probably sold a lot of newspapers and magazines, and to this day they probably get a lot of mileage out of something like this,” she said.
Chalmers also mentioned the motion picture “Mississippi Burning” and how she watched it disgusted at the way Mississippi and her hometown were portrayed, but at the same time disgusted that something like that could have happened here.
She said she’s learned a lot from being a part of the task force and that it has been interesting to hear how other people feel about the incident, “all races and ages.”
She’s struck by the diversity.
“It’s just so interesting that most of us, being from different backgrounds racially and generationally, how we felt so much of the same thing. It’s really been a bonding and therapeutic experience for me.”
Chalmers has left the meetings feeling emotionally drained, she said, like the whole group is in therapy each week.
“It’s the most positive thing to come out of such a negative experience. All of us when you express your views and opinion about it, it’s amazing we’re so unified. I feel cleansed when we leave there.”
Bea Carson, 50, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and a member of the task force, admitted that she was practically drafted out of the need for diversity, but added that being a part of the group was a natural fit for her.
“The Tribal administration asked me if I would attend the meetings and not necessarily represent the tribe, but stated that there needed to be tribal members on the committee. I said I would do it because I have had some experience dealing with a diverse group of folks.”
She said all her life her family had encouraged her to treat everyone equally no matter what race they belonged to. She said her parents introduced her to different folks, and didn’t want her to be friends with people of just one group.
“Cultural diversity is something I’ve always been very keen on. Basically I was raised that way. My family had many friends who were not Choctaws and even today they’re like family to me.”
She said being on the task force is like being among friends. “That put me at ease, that way I knew I was among friends basically,” she said.
“I see a different Neshoba County now than I did back then. It’s something I wanted to do. My parents did it for me and now it’s my turn to do it for my children and grandchildren.”
She also said being a member of the task force has helped strengthen her beliefs.
“People are different now than in the early 60s. I think folks are more willing to connect with others. There are still some out there that would rather look the other way than stand and face me and say hi, but that’s their problem not mine.”
Carson said the meetings have gone extremely well and she thinks the group is getting to a point where answers are being given to a wealth of questions.
“During the meetings there have been many questions, and I think we’re finally getting to the point where those questions are coming up with some fruitful answers. It’s just a matter of pulling together and coming up with a final picture.
“It’s basically what I expected. It could have been a little bit more encompassing. I wish the community as a whole would participate more and say ‘we are behind this.’ Everybody has not.”