Thursday, June 24, 2004 1:00 PM
I have always believed in my hometown and I have believed deeply in my state, so I was not among those who thought Sunday would never come. To me, it was just a matter of when.
I left Mississippi in January 1988, fresh out of Mississippi State, for a job at The Tampa Tribune and can still recall the excitement of that adventure, the bright lights, a big American city.
But all of that was accompanied by a tinge of sadness that I was leaving something behind, and of course I was.
The New York Times Magazine did a cover story on Mississippi that winter about the basic, drastic change promised by then-Gov. Ray Mabus and other reformers like our own Dick Molpus who had been elected Secretary of State.
Providentially, I would end up in Alabama and eventually graduate school at Ole Miss, but not before I would pass through Philadelphia in the summer of 1989 to be impacted profoundly by Molpus’ apology to the families of the three civil rights workers murdered here by the Ku Klux Klan 40 years ago this week.
Stanley Dearman, the now retired editor of this newspaper, had put a face on the civil rights workers with his 1989 interview with Carolyn Goodman, mother of slain civil rights worker Andrew Goodman.
While in graduate school, I distinctly recall a very passionate former Gov. William Winter speaking to my Southern studies class in the early 1990s and imploring and encouraging us to make a difference, saying that Mississippi needed its young people to stay here.
For me, the 40th has been a calling of sorts, not an obligation I sought nor really delighted in because of the tensions bringing up the murders can create.
So it was my privilege to be seated next to Gov. Winter on Sunday as part of The Philadelphia Coalition, the 30-member, multi-racial organization that planned Sunday’s commemoration.
Winter called the commemoration “a day of liberation” since all Mississippians have been freed from the shackles of fear and intimidation.
And to have Gov. Haley Barbour come and denounce the evil that was perpetrated here was even more fitting, an affirmation that our beloved Mississippi has turned yet another corner, that the old Southern Strategy is dead.
“We know that when evil is done it is a complicit sin to ignore it, to pretend it didn’t happen even if it happened 40 years ago. You have to face up to your problems before you can solve them,” Barbour said.
Another Republican, Rep. Chip Pickering, joined Democrat Congressmen Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and John Lewis of Georgia, on the platform signaling their solidarity on the Neshoba issue.
We on The Philadelphia Coalition realize that there are those among us who hurt deeply, but the strength of this community has been that it has loved and not condemned, a Biblical principle that is certainly as important as the Sixth Commandment that “thou shalt not kill.”
A member of the coalition relayed to me his conversation with David Goodman, the brother of Andrew Goodman, at the coliseum on Sunday.
The man felt he needed to apologize personally to Goodman, but the brother of the man who was shot on a darkened county road at point-blank range stopped him in mid sentence to say an apology wasn’t necessary.
With forgiveness comes healing, and the very act of being forgiven can overwhelm us when we consider the magnitude of Christ’s suffering.
“I never thought the day would come when I would say I was happy to be in Neshoba County, but today I am,” said Carolyn Goodman, mother of Andrew Goodman, at the Mt. Zion memorial service on Sunday.
In order to be forgiven, we had to confess, and that’s what this community did on Sunday in acknowledging the crimes and calling for justice.
Molpus spoke of the corporate guilt. “I recognize that only a handful of hate-filled men actually committed the murders, but we are all, to some degree, implicated,” he said.
Mississippi native and author Ralph Eubanks said in a National Public Radio essay in May after his first visit to Philadelphia: “When I was seven years old, Neshoba County scared me to death. It was the place where people just disappeared for no reason. So I swore that I would never set foot in Neshoba County.”
Eubanks, who is African-American, was among the 1,800 or so who attended the commemoration Sunday, making a 14-hour trip by car from Washington, D.C.,with his two children.
He asked his children to write down what the trip to Philadelphia meant. His 10-year-old son Aidan wrote that “you can’t ignore history.” Pressed to clarify, he said, “That’s what I heard everyone say on Sunday and it’s true. I think bad things happen when we forget the past.” (Aidan had jumped to his feet after Molpus’ rousing speech on Sunday.)
His daughter, Delaney, 7, wrote, that “you don’t have to be afraid in Mississippi anymore.” And we don’t.