Young German native among those inspired by racial healing
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 1:00 AM
A young German native and freelance filmmaker was here last week to attend several days of activites commemorating the 50th anniversary of the civil rights murders and drew comparisons to the Holocaust, saying he was inspired by Mississippi's more recent "internal intervention," compared to Germany's "external intervention."
Myrlie Evers told a crowd at the unity program on Saturday that they are “stronger than they think.”
"It comes from people who have been living here for generations," he said.
Three young men, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, were murdered in Neshoba County by the Ku Klux Klan on June 21, 1964, because they were involved with registering blacks to vote.
The native German, Jean-Baptise Chuat, said that as one who has "benefited from everything that has been done [in Germany] before I was even born, it is very moving" to see what's happening in Mississippi.
"It's like a spiritual journey to actually witness change happen," he said.
Chuat was here with his fiancee Claire Whitlinger, a University of Michigan doctoral student doing research on how communities confront difficult histories. Both are in their mid-to-late 20s.
They came here wanting to know how Neshoba County handled the murders.
After a week in Neshoba County, Whitlinger said she thinks there's "a lot of similarities" with her native California.
"For example, where I grew up in California, we have a train track and on one side predominately white people live and on the other side it's predominately people of color, and I think that's a phenomenon common in most American towns."
"The difference, I think, is that we have a lot of the same racial tensions, but we don't talk about them. That's a similarity and a difference, because some people in town don't talk about them here either, but then you have events like this where difficult history is come from and this type of thing doesn't happen where I'm from."
"It's been pretty amazing. We were at the Mt. Zion ceremony and just hundreds of people were there. For me, as a student of the civil rights movement, it was amazing to see so many people there."
Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers keynoted the main program at the Neshoba County Coliseum on Saturday.
Evers-Williams told the multi-ethnic audience of about 125 that "we are stronger than we think."
"Don't keep looking over your shoulders because you know what's there," she said. "Look up and work in homes and communities and churches and wherever you might be."
Evers-Williams told the crowd that it is hard to forgive even though "we never forget."
"Remember just a year before the three young men lost their lives here, my husband was shot down at the front door step of our home," she said. "The night before he was killed he told me 'I want you to do two things for me: take care of my children and be involved in the movement.'"
After Medgar was murdered, Evers-Williams said it was necessary for her and her three children to leave Mississippi. They left for California, a place where Medgar told them they needed to go if they ever had to leave.
"After I moved, I heard about the Freedom Riders going to Mississippi," Evers-Williams said. "I recall thinking in Philadelphia, Miss. or any place in Mississippi what actually happened here would probably be the outcome and it was."
"I shutter to think of the pain, the fear, and the agony that they went through in those last hours of their life," she told the audience.
Mayor James Young welcomed the audience earlier by telling them "this is no funeral," but "this is a celebration."
"Let us not forget what we have today is worth cherishing and celebrating," Philadelphia's first black mayor said. "Let us not forget 50 years have passed, but we have 50 new years. We are one nation under God. When we learn that, God will open up some doors like we've never seen.
The Neshoba County Youth Coalition performed their state championship skit which featured county teenagers acting as television, political and civil rights figures such as Wendy Williams, Dick Molpus and Edgar Ray Killen.
Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels spoke at the unity program about what the U.S. Department of Justice is doing and has done for civil rights.
"Fifty years ago, when Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner disappeared, my predecessor, John Doar, came personally to investigate Mississippi," she said.
Samuels also commented on education, voting rights and public safety which she said was "the most basic civil right."
During her keynote address, Evers-Williams announced Jim Crow was not dead and no longer wears "white robes," but is "very much alive in Brooks Brothers blue suits."
"There have been tremendous changes in my native state of Mississippi and I thought that when I left, I would never come back, but lo and behold, here I am," the 81-year old said. "There must be a reason for it and I still don't know what it is, but my feet seem to be planted."
As Evers-Williams was closing, she said: "Never fail to register and vote. Never forget to help our children know about this period of time and before."
Then, Evers-Williams had everyone in attendance sing "This Little Light of Mine." A song, which she said, was true of moving forward towards unity in America.
A former Freedom Rider, Andy Schifrin, came over 2,000 miles to come to the commemoration service.
Schifrin of Santa Cruz, Calif. said he worked in Meridian with the Council of Federated Organizationa to help register black voters.
"It was a time of segregation," he said. "We were trying to recover from three guys being murder and there was a lot of upset from that."
He said though he didn't really know the three slain civil rights workers, he did get the chance to meet them.
"They were really likable and pleasant and wanted change," Schifrin said. "They were concerned about the difficulties that black people were facing down here."
Schifrin said to be able to come to Neshoba County and not be scared is a change that he has seen in his stay in Mississippi this past weekend.
"Having the ability to vote and being able to have more of a political impact is important, but there is still a lot to be done," the former Freedom Rider said.
On Thursday night, "Neshoba, the Price of Freedom" was shown at the historic train depot.
Leroy Clemons led a question and answer session following the video. Clemons and the crowd discussed topics ranging from education to county race relations and more.
"Neshoba, the Price of Freedom" has won Best Documentary at the Boston Film Festival, New York International Independent Film & Video Festival, Indie Memphis Film Festival and Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, The film also received Best Overall Film at Texas Black Film Festival.
The commemoration week also hosted Youth Day and Honoring Local Heroes service at Mt. Nebo Baptist Church on Friday.
The commemoration week kicked off June 15 with the annual memorial program at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. This year's guest speaker was U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.
Other speakers at that event attended by more than 200 included Neshoba County native and former Secretary of State Dick Molpus, former Gov. William Winter, among others.