EDITORIAL/Why stir up the past?
Thursday, June 24, 2004 7:29 AM
The reason a broad-based, tri-racial task force is planning the 40th anniversary commemoration of the civil rights murders is because if this community remains silent we can expect others to set the tone and another series of national headlines that read: Nothing’s changed in Mississippi or Neshoba County.
Unity and progress will be part of our message, and the task force alone is a huge statement. The groundwork for this task force was laid with a similar group in 1989 that led to the first public apology and opened a public dialogue on the issue for the first time in Neshoba County.
Talking about the murders is digging up skeletons that don’t need to be disturbed, some are sure to argue, but shadows linger over this community and there is a sense of collective guilt many more young people are apt to admit than older generations.
We do need to move on, but there is some unfinished business that must be dealt with first, a sin, a stain on this community.
The task force has so far touched on three broad areas: 1.) external forces such as demands for justice and image 2.) internal forces such as guilt and knowing right from wrong and 3.) a philosophy or vision for the future.
Plans so far call for a Sunday, June 20 memorial service that could draw thousands of visitors, including leaders of the civil rights movement and sitting elected state officials, including Gov. Haley Barbour.
We will have a real opportunity to show the world how this community has changed — and the world will be watching, to be sure.
Already, emerging out of the task force is a message of recognition, resolution and redemption.
There is a broader national signifigance to the Neshoba County murders. Since 1989, when the Neshoba case was first re-examined, authorities in six states have re-opened 22 civil rights murders that led to 21 convictions, two acquittals and one mistrial. So the pressure is on here.
District 5 Supervisor James Young, a member of the task force, called Neshoba County the “Pearl Harbor” of the civil rights movement.
Many simply want to come here to connect, to stand on the “holy ground” of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church that was burned to the ground by the Ku Klux Klan to lure at least one of the three civil rights workers here so he could be “eliminated.”
But the struggle wasn’t just at Mt. Zion, as a tourism committee is documenting with oral histories, a planned cultural heritage tour and museum, all of which could draw thousands annually here to visit historic sites. But of course this is more than tourism and economic development.
A strong focus on justice is emerging.
Freedom Summer was to an older generation of whites here an invasion of outsiders coming in to tell them how to run their lives, to threaten the Southern way of life. The volunteers were not all clean-cut college kids, many will relate. And of course no one likes being told what to do.
There was a feeling among some that if the civil rights workers had not been here they would not have been murdered.
To the black community, Freedom Summer was hope and the beginning of a transition that is continuing.
The mere mention of some places conjures up certain images, think of Waco, for example. Mississippi, bare feet and outhouses is a stereotype many of us have experienced living in or visiting other places.
Philadelphia, Mississippi, and hate are synonymous to some because of movies like “Mississippi Burning.” And it’s incumbent upon us to change that image.
The wounds are deep, and I can’t even begin to fathom the pain of entering through a separate door at the doctor’s office or nervously having to pick up my food to-go at a restaurant, being unable to get a haircut in town or denied admittance to a junior college because of the color of my skin.
But the real joy of this task force is the understanding, the relationships that are emerging, the genuine trust and respect that is felt, and that as blacks, whites and Choctaws, we all recognize that Philadelphia and Neshoba County are culturally rich and have so much to offer.
More than anything, we can appropriately memorialize the civil rights workers with our actions, not our silence, committing ourselves to educating future generations, as well as pursuing the truth and seeking justice.
But to simply insist this summer how good we are — absent redemption or atonement — would be a terrible mistake. We must all rise to this unique challenge, confidently acknowledging the past, yet demonstrating the change.