Clemons shares Philadelphia story with Oregon leaders
Former Philadelphia Alderman-at-Large LeRoy Clemons, currently the executive director of the Neshoba Youth Coalition, was in Portland, Ore., at a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day observance at a Jewish synagogue on Monday to share the story of The Philadelphia Coalition, the multi-ethnic group here that in 2004 led the community-wide call for justice in the 1964 civil rights murders.
The text of the speech he delivered is as follows:
What does Racial Healing mean to me? Racial Healing to me is living in a world in which all people are treated with dignity, respect, and fairness, regardless of their race, ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation, and are able to thrive and reach their full potential, free from the constraints and barriers imposed by racism and discrimination.
Tonight, we are here to honor the life and legacy of civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and the civil rights activists, who made the ultimate sacrifice in the fight for justice and equality. Tonight, I would like to focus on three young activist, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
They, along with many other young men and women came to Mississippi to help blacks empower themselves in a state with the worst and most entrenched Jim Crow segregation laws in the nation. They were emboldened by the prospect, that if you they could change Mississippi; they could change any state in the nation.
They were met by a wall of resistance, fostered by the state Sovereignty Commission, financed by members of the white Citizen Council, and enforced by Klansmen, law enforcement, the business establishment, and many of the good people of Mississippi, who stood by and did nothing, but still they came.
They had hoped to start Freedom Schools throughout Mississippi as well as in my hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, both to help children who were segregated into substandard schools, and to help adults get ready to tackle the unfair literacy tests that stood between them, and their right to vote. Blacks were being denied the right to vote with such voting poll questions as “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?”
On the night of June 21, 1964, these three warriors made the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs and convictions. They were ambushed and murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan on a dark road in the late evening hours in my hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi.
This atrocity, perpetrated in my hometown, is considered by many to be the single most notorious crime committed anywhere in the United States by the Ku Klux Klan during the violent decade of the sixties. The disappearance and triple murders of the trio made news around the world. Their bodies were discovered 44 days after their disappearance buried in an earthen dam in my hometown of Philadelphia. In 1988, the killings were dramatized in the film “Mississippi Burning.” For many young people across the country, and throughout Mississippi, especially in my hometown, this was our first exposure to the horrifying events that occurred in our hometown. The killings were not just a stain on Philadelphia’s image; they became Philadelphia’ image. It didn’t matter where you travelled in the world: the only things people seemed to know about my hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, was that it was the place where a group of racists and backward- thinking individuals had murdered three civil rights activists.
While there is no denying what happened in my hometown, what happened there was not an isolated occurrence. Throughout the country, the Klan used cross burnings, beatings and “eliminations” as intimidations tools to prevent school integration, race intermingling, and to discourage blacks from exercising their new right to vote. The events that occurred in my hometown caused the nation and the world to pay attention to the racially inspired brutality that existed in the South.
Suffering from willful amnesia, for 40 years after the murders, the state of Mississippi, its people and the good citizens of my hometown sat idly by and did nothing to address the wrongful deaths committed in my hometown. That changed in 2004, when a multi-racial group, calling themselves the Philadelphia Coalition, stood together, and ask the State and local authorities for justice in the 40-year -old murder case. The call was answered, and 41 years to the day of the murders, Edger Ray Killen was sentenced to sixty years in prison for masterminding the murders.
The people of my city choose to face the truth, although hurtful at times; they choose to confront our ugly past by coming together, and talking about those uncomfortable issues that many Mississippians still prefer not to talk about.
The Coalition drew blacks, whites and Native Americans on all economic levels. The group’s purpose was to seek the truth, ensure justice, and to nurture reconciliation, so that our children would not be stained by the same racist clouds that engulfed us for decades. We sought for understanding of a system that for too long had divided us, a system that desperately had to be dismantled.
There were those in the community who said that it’s been too long. Why keep bringing this up. We just want to forget about this and move on. He’s 80 years old. The problem with that argument is, that if it involved a member of your family, would it matter how long? There is no statute of limitation on murder.
The conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for the manslaughter of James, Andrew, and Michael carried a symbolic significance that went beyond the families of those who died. It was not about how an 80- year- old man would spend his final years, but rather, how we would face our racial past. The trial and subsequence conviction gave the community a chance to heal.
As my friend and fellow Coalition member, Debra Posey, once said, “a wound can look healed and not truly be healed… eventually you have to open it up and let it be drained.”
We were tired of living under this cloud, the stereotypes and misconceptions about our hometown of Philadelphia. People from across the country and the world had this idea that we were still a backwards and racist people. It was time for the good citizen of Philadelphia to let their voices be heard. We knew we had changed, but because we were letting others speak for us, and tell our story, very few outside the state knew of the changes. The choice was clear. We had to be the author of our own story.
Some of our critics were concerned that our motive for the call for justice, and the desire to author our own story was to help bolster the image of our city. We did, what we did, because it was the right thing to do. When you do the right thing, you don’t have to worry about your image, it will take care of itself. As a bi-product of doing the right thing, Philadelphia indeed has reshaped its legacy, and is a shining example for the nation when it comes to racial healing. What a tremendous testimony to those elected officials, business leaders, and citizens, who stood for justice, told their stories and changed a city.
The relationships that were forged on the Philadelphia Coalition have had a lasting benefit to the city. Today, one of the members of the Coalition is Mayor of the City, another member is Chief of the Choctaw Indian Tribe. Other members are in key policy and decision-making position throughout the city.
Although the coalition was established for the primary purpose of establishing a memorial for the slain civil rights trio, its mission now has shifted to education and historical preservation. The goal of the Coalition was to create an environment where our children would not be torn apart over issues of race.
In 2006, The Coalition led the efforts to get the Mississippi Legislature to pass Senate Bill 2718, a law requiring civil rights education to be a part of the curriculum in every public school in the State. They also led the efforts to designate a portion of Hwy 19 South, where the civil rights activists were murdered, as the Goodman/Schwerner/Chaney Memorial highway.
The work of the Coalition helped to provide a blueprint for other communities that were interested in eliminating the harmful effects of racial prejudice and inequity in their community. We were not naïve to think that our journey would be easy, but we were also not so cynical to believe that it could not happen.
We all bought into the truth, that if our city was to reach its full potential, we had to continue to work together to eliminate racial injustice, while continuing to improve our social, health, educational, and economic conditions.
As our city continues to become increasingly racially diverse, we continue to lead the way through innovative education opportunities, and fostering an atmosphere of reconciliation where candid and rational dialogue continue to flourish.
What happened in Philadelphia would not have seemed possible 60 years, but now that it has, it can serve as a model for other communities throughout the country.
My hometown discovered that the cancer of racism infects each person it touches. Although the ravages of the illness found a face in my community, it was my community that found a cure. It was found in the hearts of a special group of individuals who were not just willing to talk about their problems, but to roll up their sleeves and do something about it. Philadelphia, Mississippi has begun to heal.
Tonight, I stand here to offer the cure to any other community who would like to begin the healing process that the cancer of racism has brought upon their beloved community.
Philadelphia, Mississippi, has become a “shining example” of young Blacks, Whites and Native Americans working together.
Racism is not just a Mississippi problem; the rest of the country must face the question of race as well. There needs to be more discussions about how unchecked institutional and systemic racism continue to create an atmosphere where gun violence, lack of affordable housing, and homeliness, continue to ravage our communities.
As a Nation, State, City, Community, and individuals, it is time we answer the call. You must not make the same mistake as my hometown of developing willful amnesia of the problems facing your communities. Instead, I implore you to learn from the lessons learned in Philadelphia, Mississippi. We must honor the sacrifices of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and the many others who sacrificed all for their belief in a more just and equitable community for all. Like the choir has reminded us tonight, I’ve got goodness, I’ve got mercy, I got my mind stayed on freedom, and I’m gonna live every day, so God can use me. Regardless of what happens along my journey, I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around because all praise is to my God, and if Adonai decides to call me home, I will leave this journey knowing that I’m going up yonder to be with my Lord.
Thank you, and may our God continue to bless you!