A packed house greeted federal representatives seeking feedback on elevating the old county jail to national park status because of its significance in the Civil Rights Movement.
A packed house greeted federal representatives seeking feedback on elevating the old county jail to national park status because of its significance in the Civil Rights Movement.
A packed house greeted federal representatives seeking feedback on elevating the old county jail to national park status because of its significance in the Civil Rights Movement.

National Park Service representatives were in town Wednesday to specifically discuss the jail where civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were held on trumped-up speeding charges, released, ambushed by a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen that included law enforcement and murdered on June 21, 1964.

Several Neshoba County residents made it clear that in order to tell the full story of what happened to the three men, the Park Service needed to consider several additional sites in the county, including several sites that are part of the Neshoba County African-American Heritage Driving Tour.

One of the primary additional sites discussed was the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, which was burned to the ground on June 16, 1964, by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner had come to investigate the fire and the beating of church members.

Ben West with the Park Service out of Atlanta said that the current “special resource study” was effectively a fact-finding mission to determine significant Mississippi Civil Rights sites and evaluate the potential for a national park unit to be recognized in Philadelphia.

He noted that Park Service role is to prepare a report on the study, which would then be transmitted to Congress. He explained that the report is not a “silver bullet,” and that the final decision as to any national park designation was not up to the them, but Congress and the President.

Pastor Ava Clay of Mt. Zion made a specific request to have Mt. Zion added to the list of sites to consider for possible federal designation. Clay said that people come from all over the world to visit the church and to meditate and pray on the grounds.

“When they (Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner) heard that the church had been burned,” she said. “They came with love in their hearts.”

She explained that the site attracts many who come to learn more about what happened during the Freedom Summer, especially regarding the murders that happened in the community.

Philadelphia Alderman-at-Large Leroy Clemons summed up the importance of Mt. Zion and other area sites.

“You can’t tell the story of the jail without the Mt. Zion Church story,” he said. “It was because of the efforts of Chaney and Schwerner trying to establish a freedom school there that brought them to Philadelphia.”

Clemons also referenced the importance of Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Chuch, which he said was a centerpoint for civil rights activities in the county during the 1960s. Clemons said that when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Philadelphia he was housed at the Mt. Nebo church.

Clemons also suggested inclusion of Rock Cut Road, Road 515, where the three men were actually murdered, the Bogue Chitto swamp where the station wagon the men were driving in was found and the property where the men were actually buried.

Many of these locations, Clemons pointed out, are actually part of the Neshoba County African-American Driving Tour, a tour which Clemons frequently guides.

Neshoba County District 5 Supervisor Obbie Riley agreed with the importance of the locations on the driving tour as an importance piece of area history.

“When people come here, from the U.S. and other countries, they just want to visit and see and try to wrap their mind around what happened,” he said, noting that he recently took an 80 year old man on the tour who noted that the experience was on his “bucket list” of activities.

Riley and Clay both voiced the importance of telling the whole story and both noted that those who can tell the story are getting older and will not be able to share their tale forever.

“This is a story worth telling,” Clay said. “Where do we begin to compile the story so it is not forgotten?”

Frank Dungan asked the Park Service to discuss some of the powers available to them, specifically about how they could help the local community with economic planning and input for a proposed park.

Justin Henderson with the Park Service explained that the study would be looking at four specific criteria to determine the viability of aa designation:

• National significance

• Suitability

• Feasibility

• Need for Park Service management

Henderson provided a flow chart that explained that all four elements must be present in order to finalize the study with a positive finding (recommending designation).

Henderson explained that the study is still in its initial phases and the goal is to complete the entire study by the summer of 2019.

Park Service representatives explained that at this point it was premature to discuss whether or not the park service would acquire property, which properties and how a possible national park in Philadelphia might look.

West did explain, however, that ownership of property was not neccessary for a national park designation.

He noted that portions of the Vicksburg National Military Park are not owned by the Park Service. He also gave other examples of designated parks where they did not own or manage the specific property in question.

The project is still seeking public input on four questions:

• What are the most important stories and people associated with the civil rights movement in the state of Mississippi?

• Do you have any ideas or concerns about preserving and interpreting civil rights sites in Mississippi? What are they?

• What sites or places related to civil rights history would you suggest for consideration as part of this study? Why?

• What ideas or comments would you like to share with us?

The NPS is requesting that answers to these questions be provided by June 1, 2018, at the following website: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/MSCR_SRS