The annual service memorializing three young men murdered here registering blacks to vote 56 years ago Sunday will be led by the Bishop of the United Methodist Church of Mississippi outside of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church that the Ku Klux Klan burned to the ground a week earlier in 1964.

For the first time, First United Methodist Church of Philadelphia will participate formally with a quartet slated to sing “I’ll Fly Away.”

“We simply want to be a part of what they are doing,” said the Rev. Chris Young, the senior minister at FUMC. “This is the celebration of that church and of its past and of its future. And so, our only part in that, and it’s a minor part, but our part in that is one to say, ‘We are with you. We love you, and we are thankful for our ties with you through just in faith and through the United Methodist Church.’” 

Young said arrangements were made before the police killing of George Floyd last month in Minneapolis. “I think it takes on an even different, more special context, in light of where we are now,” he said.

“To be able to be part of a memorial service that reminds us that love overcomes hate, that the goodness of God overcomes any evil that is done, to see that this church survived and thrived and continues to be a witness today and just given the history, to be asked to participate, that’s a real strong statement, I think, on their part to ask us.”

The annual service Mt. Zion has put on starts at 3 p.m. with keynote speaker Bishop James E. Swanson, Sr.

“We’re excited to have Bishop Swanson,” longtime Mt. Zion member and organizer Elsie Hill Kirksey said. “I started to put together his information for a letter promoting this year’s memorial, and it was a little overwhelming.”

The memorial organized by Mt. Zion honors the memory of  James Chaney, 21, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, who were ambushed and murdered in Neshoba County on June 21, 1964, by the Ku Klux Klan after investigating the burning of Mt. Zion nearly a week earlier.

The Klan believed the church was playing a central role in the black voter registration effort. The highly-fictionalized 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning” depicted the murders and the subsequent federal hate crimes investigation.

Several church members were beaten, some severely, as they left the church the night of the fire. The church has continued to hold a service annually since that summer.

In 1967, seven men were convicted in federal court of conspiring to violate the civil rights of the three murder victims.

In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, a part-time Baptist preacher and sawmill owner, was convicted in Neshoba County Circuit Court on three counts of manslaughter for his role in orchestrating the murders.

Killen received three 20-year consecutive sentences. He died January 11, 2018, in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. 

The ceremony itself will be somewhat unconventional due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The event will take place outside, and attendees are encouraged to enjoy the service from the safety of their vehicles or stream the event online via Facebook Live on the the Historic Mt. Zion UMC page.

Philadelphia Mayor James Young has attended the annual memorial for decades, but he said the 2020 event should have increased significance due to the ongoing racial strife that has sparked protests in demonstrations across the country since the death of Floyd on May 25.

“It should come as no surprise that the significance of this year’s remembrance is even more pronounced,” Young said. “We say every year there’s more to be done, and seeing the unrest in communities across the country, that’s an even broader statement this year.”

Young said he planned to enjoy Sunday’s event from the safety of his truck.

“It’s tragic to think about all the broken hearts and broken spirits out there right now,” he said. “These young men stood for peace and equality and that needs to remain the focus. We shouldn’t wait all year for one day to follow that message, but it’s important to gather on this day each year to honor their memory.”

Swanson serves on the board of trustees for Emory University, Rust College and Millsaps College and chairs the Gammon Theological Seminary’s Board of Trustees. He has led services across the United States and in the countries of Japan, Korea, Brazil, Russia, Estonia, Chile, Canada, Egypt, Liberia, Sudan, Uganda and South Africa.