Neshoba acknowledges '64 murders
Thursday, June 24, 2004 1:00 PM
The mother of a civil rights worker murdered here 40 years ago this week said at a commemoration on Sunday she never thought she would be happy to be in Neshoba County.
“I never thought the day would come when I would say I was happy to be in Neshoba County, but today I am,” the mother, Carolyn Goodman, 88, declared during a memorial service at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church as the community marked the 40th anniversary of the slayings of three civil rights workers in 1964 with a resolute call for justice.
Gov. Haley Barbour attended the 1 1/2 hour opening ceremony at the Neshoba County Coliseum and joined in the call for justice, commending the 30-member multi-racial coalition that planned the commemoration which drew about 1,800.
“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.
Native son Dick Molpus urged citizens to share what they know about the murders.
Former Gov. William F. Winter called Sunday’s event a “historical coming together” and “a day of liberation.”
James Young, president of the Neshoba County Board of Supervisors, and an African-American, said in a welcome: “I can see the cloud moving today because we are admitting that we were wrong, the justice system was wrong, the politicians were wrong, the people were wrong. You are looking at a new Neshoba, a new Mississippi where the politicians are saying ‘let’s have justice;’ the lawyers are saying ‘let’s have justice;’ the preachers are saying ‘let’s have justice;’ the citizens are saying ‘let’s have justice.’”
U.S. Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) attended along with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).
Lewis, a civil rights activist who was beaten and jailed in the 1960s, told the crowd, “Some of us gave time, some us a little blood. These three citizens of the world gave all they had.”
On May 26 The Philadelphia Coalition, the group that planned the commemoration, issued a resolution calling for justice. Two days later Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood announced that federal prosecutors would become involved.
Resolutions calling for justice were also passed by the city of Philadelphia, the Neshoba County Board of Supervisors and the Community Development Partnership. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians issued a letter of support for the coalition.
While many have taken the knowledge of the crime to their graves, others, Molpus told the crowd, were now aged and infirmed and “may want to be at peace with themselves and with their God before their own deaths.”
Molpus, interrupted eight times by applause, said there were “witnesses among us” who could share information about the murders with prosecutors.
“They need to be encouraged to come forward. They need to know that now is the time to liberate those dark secrets. When we have heard murderers brag about killings but we pretend those words were never spoken, when we know about evidence to help bring justice but refuse to step forward and tell authorities what they need to know, that is what makes us in 2004 guilty,” Molpus said.
Winter said Sunday was a day that many feared would never come.
“Forty years is a long time. It should not have taken that long but thank goodness it has come,” he said.
He praised those who were instrumental in planning the event, both black and white, calling them people of conscience and good will.
He recognized The Philadelphia Coalition and the city and county governments for passing resolutions seeking justice.
Winter called for racial reconciliation and challenged those in attendance to break down barriers that continue to separate.
He pointed out that there was still too much distrust and misunderstanding among races and said people were still, at times, judged on how they look.
The community can honor the slain civil rights workers, he said, “by seeking to achieve together what we cannot achieve separately.”
Civil rights activist Dorie Ladner spoke briefly about her work in Mississippi in the 1960s.
“This is like coming back but being welcomed this time. Before I was not welcomed,” she said.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day that this would happen. I must say that I thank everybody who has been involved. I’m overwhelmed.”
At the Mt. Zion memorial service that followed the coliseum event, retired Methodist Bishop Clay F. Lee and pastor of the First United Methodist Church in 1964, in describing a spiritual epiphany during his struggle to stand against racism here, delivered a personal but poignant commemoration message.
Rev. Lee had come at the insistence of the Mt. Zion members who were on the coalition.
“We have come this far by faith. We’ve come this far because God is still with us, but God is not done with us yet,” Lee said.
At the Mt. Zion memorial, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones of Birmingham, who successfully prosecuted the Birmingham church bombing said he “can feel another rising tide wave of justice. The seas are beginning to churn and the waves are beginning to mount,” he said.
Ben Chaney of New York, brother of James Chaney, one of the workers killed, boycotted the commemoration and, in a five-minute tirade before television cameras on the church grounds, claimed the coalition “used Negroes to do their bidding” to pull off the event. (See story, page 16A.)
Leroy Clemons, co-chairman of the coalition and president of the Neshoba County NAACP, said Chaney’s demand to be seated along with 80 students inside the church came out of the blue.
The coalition, that included members of Mt. Zion was working under the authority of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church Board of Trustees.
The coalition had attempted to work with Chaney and his spokesmen, a convicted felon from California with Neshoba County ties and a white man from Arkansas, members said.
At the coliseum the Rev. Richard W. Holbert, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, presented the invocation.
The Rev. Kenan Ryan, pastor of Holy Cross Catholic Church, read the 13th Chapter of I Corinthians.
Leroy Clemons and Jim Prince read a resolution by the Philadelphia Coalition calling for justice in the 1964 case. Mayor Rayburn Waddell read a similar resolution on behalf of the city, the county and the CDP.
A community choir sang a rendition of “Heal the World” and an oral history video from the civil rights era was shown.
The Rev. Johnny Beckwith, pastor of Ivy Street Church of Christ, gave the benediction.
The colors were presented by the Neshoba Central Junior ROTC.