Woman called out to God to spare husband as Mt. Zion church burned 57 years ago
Keeping the memories of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner alive is important to Jewel McDonald, who as a senior in high school saw the Ku Klux Klan burn her church in the Longdale community and murder the three young men because they were registering blacks to vote here.
“We should never forget these young men,” McDonald said of Chaney, 21, Goodman, 20, and Schwerner, 24. “We should always try to commemorate them each year. There should be something talked about or done each year for them. We should never forget. Never, ever, ever.”
The 57th annual memorial service was held Sunday at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church which the Klan burned.
The night the church was burned the Klan thought there was a voter registration meeting going on but it was just a board meeting, McDonald said. “The Klan came through and beat up some people and burned the church down.”
Evelyn Calloway’s parents, Bud and Beatrice Cole, were at the meeting and Mr. Cole was so severely beaten that he was impaired the rest of his life.
The Coles were leaving the church heading south toward their home right down the road when a group of armed men, including law enforcement, stopped their car and shined high-beam flashlights inside.
“My father asked them what is going on?” Calloway said. “‘What is happening what do you want?’”
One of the guys said, “‘The boys,’” Calloway said.
“The boys had had a meeting at the church that Sunday. My pop didn’t go but my mom did go to the meeting and that’s who they were looking for was the three civil rights boys.”
Calloway said the civil rights workers were no longer in town that Tuesday, June 16, 1964, when the church was burned, but the men dragged her parents out of the car asking them to tell them where the civil rights workers were beating her father severely before throwing him in a ditch.
“My mama got out of the car thinking she was going to help him but when she got out of the car she was surrounded by a group of men all with guns aimed at her head,” Calloway said. “All she could do was pray. She prayed and she told them, ‘Will you let me pray?’ and one of the guys said, ‘Oh, woman, you can pray all you want to but it ain’t going to help you now.’”
Calloway said her mother fell on her knees and said, “‘Father, I stretch my hand to thee for the help I know. If I withdraw myself from thee where else could I go?’” Calloway said. “That was from an old hymn.”
Calloway said after she said the words she heard someone in the crowd say, “Let him live.” As the men were leaving, Calloway said, they told her parents, “You better not tell anybody.”
Her mother went down into the ditch to assist her father and was able to help him out, get him into the car and they made it home where they nursed his wounds and sat on the porch with a loaded shotgun.
Calloway said her father was afraid to go to the doctor because he was scared the doctor could have been among the men who beat him.
Eventually, however, he did go to a dentist and had his jaw wired before eventually going to Chicago with her brothers where he sought medical attention. Calloway said doctors told her father his leg would be useless because of nerve damage and recommended amputation. Her father chose to keep the leg.
“My poppa said, ‘This is my leg and I am going to keep it,’” Calloway said, adding the doctor fitted him with a brace and patched him up. “In a few weeks, he was back home. He did whatever he wanted to do whenever he wanted to just as long as it was legal. He didn’t want anybody to help him do anything. That was Pops. He lived that way the rest of his life with a bum leg and a walker. Wherever he wanted to go in the world, he threw that walker in the back of the car and threw that leg up on the front seat and he was gone.”
McDonald said Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner had come back the next weekend, Sunday, June 21, 1964, to investigate the beating and church burning. It was Father’s Day.
They were arrested on trumped-up speeding charges and thrown in jail. Released that night they were ambushed by the Klan and shot at point-blank range on the Rock Cut Road and buried in an earthen dam nearby.
“Had they not showed up that Sunday, they would probably still be alive today but they came around and wanted to know what had happened and if anyone knew who the people were that were beating people and nobody seemed to know who it was because they were the people that had got beaten were,” McDonald said, adding that no one knew who the Klan members were because it turned out they were from Lauderdale County.
McDonald, who has helped organize the annual memorial event for many years, has not been actively involved the past couple of years, but she still believes the annual event is important.
“I think it is very important to continue on with it,” McDonald said. “If I have anything to do with it, which I didn’t this year, if I have anything to do with it I certainly intend to continue to have it every year.”
Likewise, Calloway said she believes the annual event is important and hopes the event has helped make a positive impact on society.
“I sure do hope so,” Calloway said. “I hope it makes a difference. It does to me but we have got so much further to go. This is just the beginning. We have a long way to go.”
McDonald’s husband Cleo said he believes the events of 1964 and the annual commemoration of the men’s sacrifices has made a positive impact on not only Philadelphia and Neshoba County but also on the nation.
“To the community and the nation, it really does mean a lot because it is all about the three young men,” Cleo McDonald said. “It is all about the three young men and that is the reason why we have it every year. Actually, if you think about it, the three young men that got killed did make a change. It made a change here in Philadelphia, and I’m proud of that and that is the reason we have it every year. It is about the three young men.”
Cleo McDonald said the events of 1964 were a turning point.
“Years later, we got black policemen,” Cleo McDonald said. “Some people started to act different, and by different, I mean act right. The other people that behaved bad, they died out. They did leave a son or daughter that still thought the same way they thought. Everything is a lot different. It is a lot better. A lot better.”
In 2004, a multi-ethnic coalition of Neshoba countians made up of McDonald, several other members of Mt. Zion along with business and political leaders and concerned citizens issued a public call for justice on the 40th anniversary of the murders.
The following January Edgar Ray Killen was indicted by a Neshoba County grand jury and was convicted 41 years to the day of trio’s deaths. He was serving a 60-year prison term for arranging the murders when he died in prison in 2018 at age 92.
Philadelphia Mayor James A. Young gave a welcome at the memorial on Sunday. “There’s no one-man team,” Young said.
During the service, the Gospel Fellowship Choir shook the church with rousing renditions of “We Shall Overcome” and “Amazing Grace,” to name a few, accompanied by instruments including the piano and tambourine.
The Rev. Lydia Michelle Dailey, the pastor of Mt. Zion Church, spoke and candles were lit by Alice Steele and Charles Kirksey for Chaney, by Shirley Nichols and Fred Seales for Goodman and by Arecia Steele for Schwerner.
As the candles were lit, the church bell was rung to remember the men.
The Rev. James Lawson Jr., a retired United Methodist minister, civil rights leader and founder of the James Lawson Institute, was the main speaker and spoke virtually on Sunday.
From the book of John, Lawson quoted Christ: “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”