Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Fifty-Six years ago, on June 21st, three young men working to register blacks to vote as part of the Freedom Summer in Mississippi were brutally murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Among the Klansmen were Sheriff Cecil Price and deputies of the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Department. As a historian I am troubled as I see an increase in racially motivated hate crimes and displays of nooses left as threats at historically black institutions or places dedicated to remembering the Civil Rights movement. I am even more troubled by the numbers of Black men being murdered, shot or otherwise assaulted by police across the nation on a regular basis.
But even now I see a lack of empathy, coming from White people in authority, including the President, police officers and officials, and even Evangelical Christians, I wonder if we are sinking back into the abyss of Jim Crow. I am glad that the massive protests in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd are continuing and include a significant number of Whites, Latinos, and others. I hope that this continues and that the violence committed by Whites against blacks, and that change begins because we as a nation cannot allow it to continue.
I have dealt with Holocaust deniers many times and also plenty of people who find nothing wrong with American slavery, Jim Crow, and racism. I find it troubling that despite the forensic, and historical evidence that people can either deny, minimize, or rationalize such behavior.
The fact that the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination had to struggle with the issue of civil rights and the race hatred of the Alt-Right over recent years, that me that the toxin of racism has not yet been purged from the Convention, many other White churches, or for that matter in of America at large.
Trayvon Martin and his Killer, George Zimmerman, Zimmerman went Free
The fact that not that long a man who was active in White Supremacist movements murdered two men and wounded a third as they defended Muslim women on a Portland Oregon commuter train was disturbing. Likewise, the murder of a newly commissioned African American Army Lieutenant by a White Supremacist on the campus of the University of Maryland, last month the death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. Sadly we can go back to the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012, and the mass murder of parishioners at the Mt. Zion AME Church, in Charleston, SC in 2014. Those were all attributed to White Supremacists or Whites acting as vigilantes. Then there there are the deaths of George Floyd, Dreasjon Reed, Brianna Taylor, Manuel Ellis, Derek Scott, Eric Garner, and most recently Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, all at the hands of police. We haven’t really grasped the depth of the problem yet. It is systematic and it will not be solved until every American is willing to confront it.
But, then there are the overt threats that harken back to our history of lynchings. Over the past several years there have been a spate of nooses being placed on college campuses, historically Black institutions, Civil Rights sites, and at the offices or residences of people who support civil rights, including professors. Those continue, and not just threats by killings. Last week two men were found hanging from trees in Victorville and Palmdale, California. I found this odd. Local officials were quicke to call them suicides, but two Black men hanging themselves from trees in heavily White cities in California’s High Desert within days of each other doesn’t seem like a coincidence. One was found not far from the Victorville Public Library, and the other near Palmdale City Hall. Since the area has its share of White Supremacist groups, I hope that police, prosecutors, and coroners check their conclusions and maybe even call for assistance from the State Attorneys General Office, and possibly the FBI.
These troubling incidents have again reminded me of the events of June 21st 1964 when three men, Andrew Goodman, Mickey Scherner, and James Chaney were murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen. Twenty year old Andrew Goodman was from New York City. He was a progressive activist and Anthropology student at Queens College. Twenty-four year old Mickey Schwerner was a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. Both Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish and had come South to work with others for Civil Rights in Mississippi. The third man, James Cheney, was a twenty-one year old Black Mississippian. Chaney was from Meridian Mississippi and was a volunteer with CORE, the Congress of Racial Equity. All three men were there to assist community leaders with voter registration and education in conjunction with local churches.
On June 21st 1964 the three men were in Philadelphia, Mississippi where they were investigating the burning of Mount Zion Methodist Church. The church had been working with CORE’s voter registration and education programs. In the wake of the church being burned, many black citizens and church members were beaten by whites, rumored to be aided by members of the local Sheriff’s office. They specifically accused Sheriff’s Deputy Cecil Price of abuse.
Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were marked men from the moment they arrived in Philadelphia. As they left the town the three were arrested for an alleged traffic violation. They were briefly jailed and released that evening, but were not allowed to make any phone calls. On the way back to Meridian, two carloads of Klan members forced their car off the road and then abducted them and murdered them. The bodies were not discovered for 44 days. Their disappearance brought national attention and a major investigation to the town. Eventually seven men, including Deputy Price were convicted of the murders. The murders and the investigation became the subject of the movie Mississippi Burning.
Iconic American artist Norman Rockwell who was well known for his portraits of American life as well as his support for the Civil Rights movement, painted “Southern Justice” which is sometimes known as “Murder in Mississippi” in 1965. This was not long after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which over the past two decades has been under attack in many southern states, and key provisions were gutted by the Supreme Court in 2012.
Fifty-six years ago the murders of these three young men brought national attention to the pervasive racism and discrimination in the country. Before this event most murders, lynchings, as well as the burnings of homes businesses were left uncovered by the media, their victims forgotten and the perpetrators unpunished.
I do hope and pray that we never go back to those days, but there are a number of troubling issues for us in the United States today. The first is that there have been quite a few laws passed to limit voting rights in various states. Some of these were successfully challenged in the courts the until the Supreme Court gutted the Voters Rights Act, the consequences of which are acutely felt now.
Then there are the rapidly growing number of racially motivated hate crimes against Blacks and other minorities as well as the threat of nooses being placed in trees around historic sites and museums dedicated to minorities or civil rights. I discussed these earlier. The Southern Poverty Law Center monitors the activities of hate groups across the political, religious, and racial spectrum and has noted a sharp increase in attacks over since the election of Donald Trump. Heavily armed and militant racist and anti-Semitic groups proudly march hand in hand with Trump supporters, allegedly to protect them from “leftists.”
I wonder if we will see a return to the commonplace violence and silence that characterized the nation’s treatment of minorities before the Civil Rights Movement. You think that we have moved the chains so far and that it cannot happen again when before our very eyes it rises like an undead specter to claim new victims. Eternal vigilance is the guardian of freedom; we cannot allow the thousands who died before, and those who have died since these three young men to be forgotten. Too much is at stake, and their blood cries out for justice.
In memory of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner, the others of the Freedom Summer, the Civil Rights movement, and today who died or suffered and died to peacefully bring about change to our society, I leave you until tomorrow. Sadly, I believe that these kinds of killings will not only continue, but increase in the days to come as the racism of some Whites and which is pervasive in many institutions, especially Law Enforcement remains.