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Murders in rural Mississippi: remembering tragedies of the Civil Rights Movement

On 21st June, Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi will hold its fifty-first memorial service for three young civil rights workers murdered by the Ku Klux Klan at the start of the Freedom Summer. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were activists who planned to create a voting rights school at the church, located in rural Neshoba County. This year’s service, while not the same highly visible event as last year’s half century remembrance, is nevertheless the centerpiece of a tradition that has continued uninterrupted since the men were killed in 1964. The three men — two white, one black — became martyrs to their cause, while the church was burned to the ground and five of its members were brutally beaten by masked men. Mt. Zion Church goers remember the deaths of the young men, as well as their goal, unrealized even now, of full and equal voting rights for black Americans.

These rural Mississippians, like African Americans elsewhere, recognize that their full participation in voting has been recently compromised by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to remove certain protections from the 1965 Voting Rights Act — a symbol of the goals of the three men who were killed. The basis for the Court’s decision, according to its Chief Justice, is that “times have changed” and blacks no longer need federal surveillance, even as white legislative gerrymandering continues to dilute the black vote. For most white Americans this change to the Voting Rights Act may seem relatively inconsequential, but for the people at Mt. Zion and other activists, the struggle over the vote has had a long and difficult history. The differences in perspective on this matter illustrate the often contrasting ways blacks and whites remember the past and further, how collective memory can affect decisions in the present.

This voting change appears to be one of the consequences of what dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg referred to as an example of second-generation Jim Crow barriers. Perhaps it has taken this long for the aesthetic achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, namely the appearance of highly-placed blacks in national politics, industry, sports, and entertainment, to show in stark relief the unresolved legacy of the old Jim Crow among the other 99 percent. In most areas of life, like health care, job opportunities, family formation, educational equality, and especially justice and policing, black Americans stand in inequitable need. But white people who control the distribution of such goods cannot be expected to remember what they do not know, or never knew, about segregation and discrimination. They do not know, for example, that when older members at Mt. Zion Church were asked about what troubled them most about the old Jim Crow, they spoke most often of what was less visible, of the hurt that came from the rejection of their common humanity, revealed in not being addressed by their given names, of being turned away from worship in churches whose doors were purportedly open to everyone. Being depersonalized is a hurt hard to expunge.

Carol George - MISSING Poster
A missing persons poster created by the FBI in 1964 shows the photographs of victims Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Mt. Zion Church members, as well as their urban kin, remember important events of the past differently from whites, and that difference has significance for the entire nation. Virtually all African Americans remember that their slave relatives were paid nothing to build the industries, farms, trade, monuments, and educational and other institutions that made the country the most prosperous in the world. Yet most white Americans feel disconnected from that history: “I owned no slaves”; “I was not even born, so I can’t be responsible.” The implications of these differing views of the past contribute to misunderstandings that too often erupt into violence in our streets.

No single racial community can effect change by itself. Street violence won’t end by equipping the police with cameras and teaching them new techniques for working in high crime areas. The power of collective memory is such that it requires new and creative ways to narrow the divide between black and white communities. The American Dilemma, that discrepancy between who we think we are and how we really behave toward each other, endures, preserved in our different collective memories. For years, the American historical record has marginalized black memory, or as philosopher Paul Ricoeur has said, we have privileged history—as the narrative written down and remembered—over memory. In this version of the record, early America was inhabited by moral, law abiding people, whose color did not need to be mentioned since in the dominant imagination they were all the same color. Anything new inserted into this account occurred only after careful consideration by the record keepers themselves. The contributions of black Americans require a more inclusive narrative: collecting stories from black communities is the beginning of national acceptance of black people as historical actors.

It is a large task. In the 1990s, President Clinton’s Commission on Race brought together leaders of both races, who were advised to gather local people in town meeting-like sessions to hear their concerns. With no fixed agenda, participants could address a broad range of issues, including affordable housing, the needs of single mothers, the equal administration of justice, and the nurturing of leaders and group advocates. Eventually energies flagged, however, and Clinton’s effort disappeared from the national scene.

The racially charged encounters that happen in our streets, our jails, our schools, and other social institutions owe much to our failure to achieve reconciliation. Reconciliation requires the admission (or at least the awareness) of complicity by one side and a willingness to forgive on the other. The observance of a national “Day of Reconciliation,” a public historical event with symbolism and ritual similar to the commemorative service at Mt. Zion Church, could be one way to open the conversation between two communities long estranged and help bridge the gap between narrative history and collective memories. Some white residents of Neshoba County wonder aloud each year why the members of Mt. Zion Methodist Church “just don’t get over it.” When the time comes that collective memory is understood in the light of a more comprehensive narrative history, perhaps they will no longer feel the need to raise the question.

Featured image: Civil right workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner’s Ford station wagon (pictured) was located in northeastern Neshoba County, Mississippi on Highway 21. The three workers disappeared on June 21, 1964, prompting in a massive federal search for the men. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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