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Justice Comes to Neshoba County: Revisiting a Time of Hate in Mississippi

There were things that happened to me in Mississippi I never told my parents: the shotgun in my belly as I backed out of the Canton A&W Root Beer Stand, standing between that sorry old man and the black kids who had gone inside after an outing we had organized; the bullets that had zipped over my head only days after I arrived in the state; or the contract the Klan had on me in 1966, according to the FBI agent I went to see in Jackson after a week of shootings and cross burnings in Scott County.

James Earl Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andy Goodman couldn’t call their parents that frightening night of June 21, 1964. But their families — the whole country, anyone who bothered to think about it — can well imagine the terror of their last day, their last hours, their final minutes. In all likelihood, through their sacrifice, these three civil rights workers saved my life and the lives of many others (although others did die after them).

Three decades later — 10 years ago — I spent four days back in Mississippi with other veterans of the movement commemorating the 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer. On the last day we went to Philadelphia as guests of the town to hear speeches and be in that place — the belly of the beast — which symbolized the unspeakable brutality of the old infected South. I don’t remember a word that was said that afternoon. I remember not listening, instead being overcome by an overpowering anger — the anger that lay for 30 years under the palpable fear I had felt the four times I had been in Philadelphia during my movement years in Mississippi.

I did tell my parents that I had been asked to drive the second powder blue Ford station wagon owned by the Congress of Racial Equality (like the one my three brothers in the movement had driven the night they were killed) to the first anniversary memorial for them at the Longdale Chapel, the burned-out church the three had gone to investigate just outside of Philadelphia. When the ceremony was over, the Chaney family — James Earl’s mother, sister, and brother Ben — got into the backseat to return to their home in Meridian. As I drove out of the church driveway onto the highway, a sheriff’s patrol car pulled right up behind me and stayed with me the 15 or 20 miles out of Neshoba County. I remember what I saw in my rearview mirror: the Chaney family seated behind me, and Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Cecil Price in their trooper hats and blue reflective sun glasses — like two angels of death — so close they seemed to be inside the station wagon directly in back of the Chaneys.

I had learned in my time in Mississippi not how not to be afraid, but how to control it. Yet I was still nervous enough to say something that I knew I really shouldn’t as I drove toward Meridian. “Price and Rainey are right on our bumper,” I said, and Mrs. Chaney responded, saying, “ I don’t want to know it. I don’t want to feel any hate in my heart today.”

Those of us who spent any time in Mississippi knew that this wasn’t about us. (I had come to Canton at the end of Freedom Summer just as Michael Piore, another grandson of the Forward — his grandfather was the Forward’s legendary Abe Cahan; mine was the paper’s late general manager B. Charney Vladeck — was departing. Yes, so many of us were Jewish — Jews whose Jewishness was distilled through the secular ideals of democratic socialism or less democratic strains, or more finely filtered by American constitutional idealism. How many Jews see their Jewishness in related terms today?) We knew that the Mississippi civil rights movement was really about the incredible moral courage and compass of the young black trail-blazers like Robert Moses and Dave Dennis, and most significantly, the black Mississippians who took us in: black folk who lived among white folk who hated, but did not themselves hate; people who lived among people who were crazy and blind with racism, but didn’t succumb to racism; people who lived with daily injustice, but always believed in justice. Where their courage and perseverance came from, I still wonder to this day. I count as dear friends the Canton family that took me in: husband and wife who became elected officials, their children who became engineers, their cousin who died on the Challenger Shuttle. Their lives and achievements are the victory that was won.

So, in one sense, the recent indictment of Klansman Edgar Ray Killen in the torture and execution of my three young brothers may seem to be little more than a historical artifact. The indicted Klansman is 79 years old, a recluse, unreconstructed and unrepentant. If convicted, he will spend his remaining years having his meals prepared for him, being cared for by the state, perhaps better than he cares for himself. He is but one of eight surviving defendants from among the 18 men originally tried on federal conspiracy charges in 1967. (The all-white jury in that case acquitted eight, was deadlocked on Killen and two others, and convicted seven, though none served more than six years in prison.)

But it matters mightily that the state of Mississippi indicted Killen, that he was arrested by one of Sheriff Rainey’s successors, that he will be prosecuted by another white Mississippian. History, we Jews know as well, if not better, than most, is an unbroken thread. It stretches from the past into our present and deeply colors our future. There is no statute of limitations for murderers or war criminals. The men who murdered my three brothers were war criminals, and the people of Neshoba County and the state of Mississippi need to be reminded of the war crimes that were committed by their fathers and grandfathers, against their sons and grandsons, daughters and granddaughters.

And because Mississippi was brought back to America, not in 1865, but in 1964, all of us as Americans need to understand and remember the war crimes that took place in our country, the war criminals who perpetrated them, the martyrs who suffered and died, and the courage of those who stood up to the grinding oppression and terrifying evil that was, in its worst manifestations, largely, but not fully — even to this day — overcome. The things that I never told my parents I have told my children, and I will tell my grandchildren. I pray they will confront evil when they see it and will tell their children and grandchildren l’dor v’dor — from generation to generation.


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