Economic impact of commemoration noted
Thursday, June 24, 2004 8:03 AM
The Board of Supervisors on Monday followed city officials and other leaders who two weeks ago called for justice in the 1964 civil rights murders.
Hundreds and maybe thousands of visitors are expected in Philadelphia June 20 for the 40th anniversary commemoration of the slayings.
“The media are going to bring this up every year anyway and the crowds are coming no matter what,” said James E. Prince 3rd, editor and publisher of The Neshoba Democrat and co-chairman of a 30-member, multi-racial coalition that is helping to plan the event.
Organizers say that by taking charge of the activities local residents set the tone, not out-of-state organizers who had sought this year to take control.
The local group, The Philadelphia Coalition, is working with members of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church to plan the activities that will be in two parts:
• An hour-long, community-wide program at 2 p.m., at the Neshoba County Coliseum.
• A 4 p.m., memorial service at Mt. Zion.
Church trustees on Saturday affirmed in a letter that plans were being coordinated by The Philadelphia Coalition.
Another group had sought to have a 1 p.m., service at Mt. Zion that included a list of nearly 20 speakers.
Some confusion has been created by the controversy, but church trustees made it clear they were working with the coalition.
“Because we are expecting such a large number of people, we, as members of the Mt. Zion memorial service committee, have been working closely with The Philadelphia Coalition, a multi-racial committee that is dedicated to seeing that justice is finally exacted on those who committed the murders. From the beginning, the Coalition has insisted that the integrity of the memorial service be maintained and that our church shall be instrumental in the planning and coordination of all activities. Everyone is adamant that Mt. Zion be the focus of all memorial activities and that, because of the large number of people and limited space at the church, we are trying to ensure that as many people as possible be allowed to participate,” the trustees affirmed.
Supervisors called on the appropriate authorities to “make every effort” to seek justice in this case.
“We regret that history will record that the authorities did not make a good faith effort to do its duty and we call on the people in authority to make an effort to seek justice in this case,” the resolution said.
The Philadelphia Coalition led the call for justice with a press conference on May 26 at which time a major tourism initiative was also announced.
Two days later Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood asked the U.S. Justice Department for help, a move some believe could lead to new evidence in a case that has drawn worldwide attention and brought disrepute on this community.
At the press conference resolutions from the Philadelphia Mayor and Board of Aldermen and the Community Development Partnership were presented.
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians issued a letter of support.
Prince, along with Leroy Clemons, president of the NAACP and the other co-chairman, told supervisors on Monday that the June 20 commemoration would have a significant economic impact on the county.
The event, the co-chairmen said, would also afford local leaders an opportunity to show the world how Neshoba County has changed in the 40 years since the murders.
Supervisors voted to contribute $5,000 to The Philadelphia Coalition to help promote economic development.
“As an economic development issue, we would not be able to pay in a lifetime for that type of positive coverage for our county,” Prince said.
Clemons said the coalition was not trying to prosecute the case.
The focus, he said, was to stop the negative publicity the county receives annually on the anniversaries of the murders and provide a true picture of how the community is today.
“It’s about changing the image of our city and our county,” Clemons said. “We’ve had a major impact on that so far because we are the ones that are speaking now.
“In the past, we’ve had these guys coming in from California, from New York. They want to come in and portray Neshoba County the way they saw it 40 years ago. That’s the image they want to keep out there.”
With the supervisors’ show of support, Clemons said the community was coming together and saying, “enough is enough” to those who come here each year “to paint us as racists. We are going to paint our own picture from here on out and let the world see how Neshoba County really is.”
The public is invited to attend the one-hour ceremony that will include a keynote address by former Gov. William F. Winter.
The memorial service will be limited but shown via closed-circuit at the coliseum.
The commemoration theme is Recognition, resolution, redemption: Uniting for justice.
Civil rights activist David Dennis is confirmed to lead a wreath-laying ceremony at Mt. Zion.
The Rev. Bishop Clay F. Lee will deliver a message at the memorial service.
He was senior minister of First United Methodist Church in Philadelphia in 1964 and was outspoken against the murders. Among others things, Lee was labeled as a Communist.
At Mt. Zion, family members of the slain men and others will also speak.
The service will be inside the church which can accommodate about 300 people.
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.
Chaney, a 21-year-old black man from Mississippi. and Goodman, 20, and Schwerner, 24, both white men from New York City, were part of the “Freedom Summer” program in Mississippi in which young civil rights workers organized voter education and registration campaigns.
The trio disappeared when they went to investigate a fire at Mt. Zion.
Forty-four days later, their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam. They had been beaten and shot.
The state of Mississippi never brought murder charges.
Ben Chaney, the brother of James Chaney, will lead a bus caravan embarking on a 20-stop tour beginning in New York City today to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the slayings.
Chaney, who heads the James Earl Chaney Foundation, a civil rights group, said the trip would include the events in Philadelphia.