Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Get The Picture: Vote

As I traveled in the night on the dark narrow road of state highway 15 to Philadelphia, Mississippi there was a haunting presence. In 2012, moving from the present into the past through a peripheral path of darkness, I couldn’t help but to wonder what three brave young men might have been thinking as they made a trip to the same city almost fifty years earlier. I was going there to take a picture of a memorial in honor of them. In 1964, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were civil rights workers in what came to be known as Freedom Summer.

In the spring of 1964 activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney looked forward to a season of change in a climate of racial hatred. As members of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), the three men were planning to register African Americans to vote in Mississippi that summer.  They had gone to Philadelphia to investigate the burning of a church that had been used for civil rights meetings. With their unwelcomed arrival anticipated, when the men entered the town they were immediately under surveillance. After their investigation, as they were leaving, they were stopped by the police for allegedly speeding. The activists were detained for several hours and denied the right to make phone calls. After becoming concerned when they couldn't make contact with the men, civil rights leaders reported them as missing.

Unknown to investigators at the time, the arresting county deputy, Cecil Price had notified a member of the KKK and arranged for the men to be ambushed. The attack happened shortly after they were released from police custody. As the Freedom Riders were leaving, the deputy followed their car to the edge of town. Before they crossed the county line he stopped the men again and ordered them to get into his car. Then he took them to a road where a gang of Ku Klux Klansmen awaited.  There the men were confronted, abducted at gun-point and taken to an undisclosed location. It was shortly before midnight on June 21.  
Chaney was violently assaulted by the mob of men. His left arm was broken in one place and his right arm in two. Six weeks later on August 4, the dead bodies of all three were found in a dam. It was determined that Chaney had been beaten with a blunt object then shot along with Schwerner and Goodman. The autopsy report also stated that he may have suffered trauma to his groin area. Ironically, the first day of Freedom Summer was the last day of their lives.
Two years after the murders eighteen men were charged with conspiracy to violate the civil rights of the victims.  An all-white jury convicted seven of the conspirators and acquitted eight. None of the convicted men spent more than six years in prison.
In 2005, almost forty-years after the initial verdict the case was re-opened. An  accomplice who was originally acquitted, 80 year-old Edgar Killen, a local minister at the time of the murders, was convicted of three counts of man-slaughter for organizing and directing the slayings. He was sentenced to the maximum of sixty years in prison. Finally, the justice that had long been ignored was served.

We will never know what Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney thoughts were as they made their trip to Philadelphia forty-eight years ago.  Nor will we ever know what they thought as they attempted to leave. The men knew that Neshoba County was one of the most dangerous in Mississippi, but for causes they were committed to they went anyway. Perhaps they thought it would be safer that day since they were not going to register African Americans to vote. As the Freedom Riders were leaving and had nearly made it out of town, they may have thought that their safe return was eminent. Whatever their thoughts were up until then, at some point before the end, the men were likely horrified as the inevitability of their deaths became apparent. 

It was a sunny February evening when I left from Starkville, Mississippi that day. By the time I arrived in Philadelphia to take the picture it was night. Between the surrounding darkness and the lack of familarity I couldn't find the monument. With time limited and running out I couldn't stay to wait for daylight. I left Philadelphia that night with disappointment and without the picture.  

If you are in the dark and  unfamiliar with the struggle for civil rights in this country, hopefully this information will enlighten you. During the 1950's and 1960's these men and others fought for African Americans to have equal rights, including the right to vote. Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney gave their lives to attain privileges that we take for granite today. In this presidential election year and others get the picture, remember their sacrifices and vote.

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