Shirley Nichols finds a seat on the back row
Thursday, June 24, 2004 9:08 AM
Shirley Nichols arrived almost an hour early for the Mt. Zion commemoration service. But instead of grabbing a seat near the front of the church, she settled into one of the 40 or so green upholstered chairs set up behind the sanctuary’s wooden pews.
“My momma always told me it wasn’t nice to turn around and look at somebody when they came into a room. That’s why I always sit on the back row. You can see everything that goes on,” the soft-spoken Nichols said, waving and nodding with a sweet smile to old friends as they entered the church meeting place.
Now in her 60s, Nichols said she’s been a member of Mt. Zion for as long as she can remember.
“I’ve been here all my life,” she said, adding that longtime members of the church are quickly disappearing.
“We’d be doin’ good if we have 10 old members left. The rest of them have done passed on,” she said.
Nichols says she’s concerned that most of the church’s newer members don’t appreciate the rich but tragic heritage of the original congregation. She’s afraid that because they don’t know or don’t care about the sacrifices of the men and women who preceded them, they’ll fail to pass on the church’s important role in the civil rights movement to future generations.
“That’s why today is so important,” she said. “These kids really don’t know anything about it. That’s because most of their parents really don’t know anything either.”
But for Nichols and others who were active in the church and the Longwood community in the 1960s, it’s a memory not easily forgotten.
Nichols was a Mt. Zion church member when the small, rural Methodist church was burned the ground on June 16, 1964. She was also a member during those difficult months and years afterwards when the congregation struggled to survive and to rebuild their meeting place.
“It was rough. It was difficult,” Nichols recalls, describing how her mind’s eye still sees the ashes, the smoldering timbers and the toppled church bell lying in the rubble in the aftermath of the Klan church burning.
It was the burning of Mt. Zion that drew James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner to Philadelphia that June and provided local Klansmen with the opportunity that eventually led to their murders on June 21.
Nichols also remembers, with a quiet sweet smile spreading across her face as she tells her stories, the help that came from “kind souls from up north” who made contributions to help rebuild the church. She also remembers how it seemed that Philadelphia turned its back on the rural church just east of the city limits.
“I think that’s why I have a problem now with them wanting to take the commemoration downtown,” she said. “For so long, nobody acted like they even knew we were out here.”