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Southern Justice and Its Relevance Today

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I have been writing about the continued problem of racism and hatred in this country, as well as in others lately. Fifty years ago, 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.

The three men were idealists who would all die because they fought for the right of Blacks to vote harassment and intimidation.

Twenty year old Andrew Goodman from New York City, 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. Twenty-one year old James Chaney was from Meridian Mississippi and was a volunteer with CORE, the Congress of Racial Equity working on voter registration and education with local churches.

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The Ruins of Mount Zion Church

On June 21st 1964 the three men were investigating the burning of Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale. They had been working with the church  to assist in registering blacks to vote.  In the wake of their visit to the town and to the church, the local Klan, which included many men of influence, including those in law enforcement sought to lure CORE workers into the town to make an example of them. They did this by upping the ante and instigated a campaign to harass, attack and brutalize the black citizens and church members. They then burned the church to the ground.

 

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The three went to the site on June 20th and were arrested for an alleged traffic violation. They were then jailed and released later in the evening without being allowed to make any phone calls. On the way back to Meridian, two carloads of Klan members forced them over, abducted them and killed them. The bodies were buried at the base of a dam and not discovered for 44 days.

Cecil Price, a deputy Sheriff involved in the arrest was one of the murderers. He was one of the men later convicted of their murder. After the killing he told his helpers:

“Well, boys, you’ve done a good job. You’ve struck a blow for the white man. Mississippi can be proud of you. You’ve let those agitating outsiders know where this state stands. Go home now and forget it. But before you go, I’m looking each one of you in the eye and telling you this: “The first man who talks is dead! If anybody who knows anything about this ever opens his mouth to any outsider about it, then the rest of us are going to kill him just as dead as we killed those three sonofbitches (sic) tonight. Does everybody understand what I’m saying. The man who talks is dead, dead, dead!”

The disappearance of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman 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.

In 1965 Norman Rockwell, well known for his portraits of American life and the Civil Rights movement painted “Southern Justice” which is sometimes known as “Murder in Mississippi”  This was not long after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which has been under attack in many southern states over the past decade and had a key provision gutted by the Supreme Court last year.

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50 years ago the murders of these three young men brought national attention to the pervasive racism and discrimination in the country. Until this incident most of the murders, lynching’s and burnings of homes, businesses, and even churches had been covered up by the media and law enforcement.  Frankly, a black life wasn’t worth investigating or the air time.

I do hope and pray that we never go back to those days, but as laws are passed to limit voting rights in various states I wonder if the clock is being turned back. I don’t think that it will in the long run these efforts to disenfranchise blacks, other minorities, students and the working poor will be successful, but we can never assume that. Freedom always hangs in the balance and it can be lost when we do nothing. The Klan is still active, and sadly its hatred for Blacks, immigrants, Jews, Moslems, Catholics, and Gays, or for that matter anyone who stands against them has spread to others not traditionally affiliated with the Klan.

Some might say that it has been fifty-years, that things have changed, so why bother bringing up the past? I’ll tell you why, because freedom is always under siege, and the sacrifice of so many, including these three young men, for those rights should never be forgotten.

In memory of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner and others of the Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights movement who died or suffered to peacefully bring about change to our society.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Things Haven’t Changed That Much: Jackie Robinson Goes to the 1964 GOP Convention and the Freedom Summer

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“A new breed of Republicans had taken over the GOP.  As I watched this steamroller operation in San Francisco, I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.” Jackie Robinson on his observations of the 1964 Republican National Convention

Jackie Robinson was a Republican. So was I for 32 years and for much of that time I considered myself a “conservative” whatever that means, though I thought it meant freedom, limited government and opportunity for all regardless of race, color, religion or any other trait or belief. I also believed and still do in a strong defense, but I can no longer consider myself a man that blesses American intervention in other people’s wars unless there is a clear and present danger to the United States, not simply our so called “interests” which may not be those of the nation at all but of multi-national corporations which were originally American businesses but not only need our military, diplomatic and intelligence resources to increase their profits.

My parents were Kennedy type Democrats, but in the 1970s, torn by the extremism of the 1972 Democratic Convention in Chicago and feeling the hatred of people for those in the military, including a Sunday School teacher who told me that my dad, then serving in Vietnam was “baby killer” I at the age of 12 decided that I would be a Republican. I was a Republican until I returned from Iraq in 2008, fully aware of the lies that took us into that war and seeing the cost both to American servicemen and the people of Iraq.

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I have been doing a lot of reading lately on a period of history that as a historian I had pretty much skipped over. That is the period of the Civil Rights movement of the early to mid-1960s. I guess I skipped over it because I was more interested in the glory of war and patriotism wrapped in historic myth than in the experiences of fellow citizens who had been killed, abused, tormented and persecuted by people like me simply because of the color of their skin. I had not yet begun to appreciate the concept of justice at home being interconnected to our deepest held principles and how we embody them in our foreign policy.

For many years I echoed the point made by some conservatives that it was the GOP that helped make the Voter’s Rights Act of 1964 and Civil Rights Act of 1965 passed into law. That is true. Most Republicans voted for them, with a notable exception, Barry Goldwater. However, what is also true is that the Republicans that voted for the 1964 act were considered “liberals” and treated shamefully at the 1964 convention, whose delegates voted down a part of the platform that would have supported that act. Of the Democrats that voted against those bills almost all came from the Deep South, a region which within a decade become a Republican stronghold and a key part of the Southern Strategy of every GOP Presidential Candidate since Richard Nixon. A Republican aide at the 1964 convention told a reporter that “the nigger issue was sure to put Goldwater in the White House.” (See Freedom Summer by Bruce Watson p.163)

However as a life long baseball fan there is one thing that I know, that if there had been no Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson we might not have gotten Rosa Parks or the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

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Robinson was appointed as a special delegate to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller who was running against Goldwater and attended the convention. He had given up his job as a spokesman for and Vice President of the Chock Full O’Nuts Coffee Company to assist Rockefeller’s campaign in 1964.

Robinson knew what it was like to be the “point man” in the integration of baseball and in his career was threatened with physical violence and death on many occasions. Some teammates circulated petitions that they would not play for a team that had a “black” on it. Robinson, encouraged by Rickey persevered and became an icon in baseball, the Civil Rights movement and the history of the United States. However, not even 10 years after his retirement from baseball and 2 years after he was elected to the Hall of Fame he once again discovered just how deep racism still ran in this country.  As he attended the convention FBI agents and other Federal authorities attempted to find the bodies of three young Voting Rights staff who were part of the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign in Mississippi. Eventually, later in the summer the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner would be discovered buried in the base of a dam near Philadelphia Mississippi. Their killers were local law enforcement officers and members of the Ku Klux Klan.

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Maybe I lived in my own fantasy world. My experience growing up was on the West Coast living in a military family in small towns and big cities. I am proud to be part of the first class that attended high school in my home town when the courts ordered desegregation in our schools. That experience at Edison High School of Stockton California from 1975-78 changed me, as did having a black roommate in college.

However, that being said it took me a long time to realize that things really haven’t changed that much from 1964 in many parts of the country, especially since I have lived most of my adult live in the historic States that comprised the Confederacy. I can say from practical observation and knowledge that racism and other forms of more acceptable prejudice live on in this country. There is not a day that goes by that I do not run into the vestiges of the hate that lived during the Freedom Summer of 1964. It is more subtle in some cases, but other times is so blatant that is sickening. I never expected that I would ever be called a “nigger lover” or “wigger” until I had people make those comments on this website in response to articles that had nothing to do with race relations or civil rights, nor did I expect physical threats from people who call themselves “Christian.” Those were learning experiences that I won’t soon forget.

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Robinson wrote of his experience at the 1964 Convention:

“I wasn’t altogether caught of guard by the victory of the reactionary forces in the Republican party, but I was appalled by the tactics they used to stifle their liberal opposition.  I was a special delegate to the convention through an arrangement made by the Rockefeller office. That convention was one of the most unforgettable and frightening experiences of my life. The hatred I saw was unique to me because it was hatred directed against a white man.  It embodied a revulsion for all he stood for, including his enlightened attitude toward black people.

A new breed of Republicans had taken over the GOP.  As I watched this steamroller operation in San Francisco, I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.

The same high-handed methods had been there.

The same belief in the superiority of one religious or racial group over another was here.  Liberals who fought so hard and so vainly were afraid not only of what would happen to the GOP but of what would happen to America.  The Goldwaterites were afraid – afraid not to hew strictly to the line they had been spoon-fed, afraid to listen to logic and reason if it was not in their script.

I will never forget the fantastic scene of Governor Rockefeller’s ordeal as he endured what must have been three minutes of hysterical abuse and booing which interrupted his fighting statement which the convention managers had managed to delay until the wee hours of the morning.  Since the telecast was coming from the West Coast, that meant that many people in other sections of the country, because of the time differential, would be in their beds.  I don’t think he has ever stood taller than that night when he refused to be silenced until he had had his say. 

It was a terrible hour for the relatively few black delegates who were present.  Distinguished in their communities, identified with the cause of Republicanism, an extremely unpopular cause among blacks, they had been served notice that the party they had fought for considered them just another bunch of “niggers”.  They had no real standing in the convention, no clout.  They were unimportant and ignored.  One bigot from one of the Deep South states actually threw acid on a black delegate’s suit jacket and burned it.  Another one, from the Alabama delegation where I was standing at the time of the Rockefeller speech, turned on me menacingly while I was shouting “C’mon Rocky” as the governor stood his ground.  He started up in his seat as if to come after me.  His wife grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

“Turn him loose, lady, turn him loose,” I shouted.

 I was ready for him.  I wanted him badly, but luckily for him he obeyed his wife…” From Jackie Robinson “I Never Had it Made” Chapter XV On Being Black Among the Republicans

Belva Davis, then a young journalist wrote of her experiences at that convention:

While the Goldwater organization tried to keep its delegates in check on the floor, snarling Goldwater fans in the galleries around us were off the leash. The mood turned unmistakably menacing…

Suddenly Louis and I heard a voice yell, “Hey, look at those two up there!” The accuser pointed us out, and several spectators swarmed beneath us. “Hey niggers!” they yelled. “What the hell are you niggers doing in here?’”

I could feel the hair rising on the back of my neck as I looked into faces turned scarlet and sweaty by heat and hostility. Louis, in suit and tie and perpetually dignified, turned to me and said with all the nonchalance he could muster, “Well, I think that’s enough for today.” Methodically we began wrapping up our equipment into suitcases.

As we began our descent down the ramps of the Cow Palace, a self-appointed posse dangled over the railings, taunting. “Niggers!” “Get out of here, boy!” “You too, nigger bitch!” “Go on, get out!” “I’m gonna kill your ass!”

I stared straight ahead, putting one foot in front of the other like a soldier who would not be deterred from a mission. The throng began tossing garbage at us: wadded up convention programs, mustard-soaked hot dogs, half-eaten Snickers bars. My goal was to appear deceptively serene, mastering the mask of dispassion I had perfected since childhood to steel myself against any insults the outside world hurled my way.

Then a glass soda bottle whizzed within inches of my skull. I heard it whack against the concrete and shatter. I didn’t look back, but I glanced sideways at Louis and felt my lower lip began to quiver. He was determined we would give our tormentors no satisfaction.

“If you start to cry,” he muttered, “I’ll break your leg.” ( Belva Davis “Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism) 

The sad thing is that in many states the new GOP has taken a page out of the past and has been either passing legislation or attempting to pass legislation that makes it harder  for Blacks and other minorities to vote. Groups have shown up armed at heavily black polling sites in recent elections and efforts have been made to ensure that minorities cannot vote. They have also challenged the 1964 Voter’s Rights Act in Court and have a friend in Justice Antonine Scalia who called it a “racial entitlement” and violation of State sovereignty.

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The tactics are quite similar to those used in the Deep South prior to 1964 which made it virtually impossible for a Black man or woman to cast a vote, and if they tried even to register to vote did so at the peril of their lives or families. The opponents of integration, voter’s rights and equal rights used some of the same lines used today against those that support these rights. “Communists sympathizers, Socialists, Atheists, Anti-Christian, Anti-American, Anti-Constitution,” you name it the same labels are being applied to those that simply want to be at the table. The sad thing that many of the most vicious users of such untruths are my fellow Christians.

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These are hard things to look at and it is far easier to believe myth than it is to actually seek truth. A few years back I cannot every in a million years having written this article. However the threats to minorities be they racial, religious or even gender have become part an parcel of the new GOP, the GOP that I could not remain a part of when I returned from Iraq.

I guess that I am becoming a Civil Rights advocate, or then, maybe it’s that I’m actually becoming more of a Christian. Branch Rickey said “I may not be able to do something about racism in every field, but I can sure do something about it in baseball.”  Oh well, I amy not be able to do something about racism and other prejudice everywhere but I can do it here and wherever I work or preach.

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Oh well whatever, it really doesn’t matter so long as I can live with myself. Besides, I’ll get labeled anyway so what does it matter? I would rather be in the same camp as someone like Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey than Antonine Scalia or those that seek to keep people down simply because they are different anyway.

Martin Niemoller once said:

First they came for the , communist
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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