Ideas have consequences – the 43rd anniversary of the Mississippi murders….

You can kill a man but you can’t kill an idea. – Medgar Evers

Born in 1952, I grew up in a small town in the South of the 50’s and ’60’s. The state I grew up in, North Carolina, was generally seen as a “progressive” state, but it saw its not insignificant amount of “trouble” as African-Americans struggled to achieve equal treatment from government, from business, and from their white neighbors. Most famous of the “troubles,” as my grandmother denominated them, were the Woolworth sit-ins in nearby Greensboro.

Like most small town Southern boys, I became aware of the existence of the Ku Klux Klan by the time I was 9-10. I saw the occasional KKK parade – and, rather later, from a safe distance, a Klan rally.

I grew up with two boys whose dads were Klan members. One boy’s dad was in the tobacco business, the other worked for the local telephone company. I played on baseball and basketball teams with those boys. We went swimming together – at the segregated pool – and I even went to a cookout for a sports team at the house of one of the guys. Their mothers were like my mother. Their dads were like my dad. They all were just people in the town I grew up in….

Except in one respect – whenever any of the “troubles” occurred, those boys were sure to share their fathers’ strong opinions on what should be done about the (insert insulting racial slur here). The solutions invariably involved horrific humiliation and violence that demeaned and eventually destroyed the “troublemakers” who “didn’t know their place” and deserved whatever “punishment” they received. The boys gave these opinions with relish and called down any boy who dared disagree with their dads as “fond of African-Americans.” (You can imagine the terminology used.)

Some kids were cowed – those of us who weren’t avoided them when they ranted because of our distaste for being called names and having to fight – and then offer explanations when dragged before the principal….

My parents didn’t believe in the KKK or what it stood for. Like many white Southerners, they were of two minds: they felt that African-Americans were treated unfairly and that that had to change, but they were frightened by trouble that came from those who fomented change – and especially from those who opposed it.

But this didn’t make them prevent me from playing sports with my friends mentioned above – or occasionally going to the home of one of them to play – or, as we got older, to hang out and listen to Beatles records (John hadn’t “offended” the Klan yet with his “more popular than Jesus” comment). We were just kids – no harm in our association. While my parents disapproved of the boys’ fathers’ association with the KKK, they thought it none of their business – and interacted with them as they would have with any other parents in our town….

They’d never heard my friends reporting on their dads’ opinions of African-Americans. Maybe this would have made a difference. But the schoolyard code is strong – and to break it meant not only telling on the kid, but on his dad. Like my parents, I made it none of my business.

All this is to lead into the mention of a pair of anniversaries.

On this date in 1964, three civil rights workers in Mississippi, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James E. Chaney “disappeared” while traveling from Philadelphia, MS to Meridian, MS, after investigating the fire bombing of a black church. Schwerner and Goodman were shot; Chaney was beaten to death.

Schwerner and Goodman were white; Chaney was black. (This may explain the extended brutality of his murder.) Schwerner was 24, Goodman 20, Chaney 21.

Their bodies were hidden in an earthen dam and discovered some six weeks later – only after a massive FBI search.

The second anniversary occurred just 2 years ago. Forty-one years to the day after the Mississippi Three disappeared, Ray Killen, an 80 year old former KKK member, was finally convicted of manslaughter in their deaths. A trial in 1967 on federal charges of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of the victims had resulted in a hung jury.

Forty-one years.

In those 41 years, those boys whose dads were Klansmen and I have grown up and become middle aged men. We all have children of our own. Mine are approximately the ages of the young men (a fact that gives me shivers) murdered in Mississippi during that “Freedom Summer” of 1964. Those boys, now men, lost touch long ago – separated by interests, education, distance. Separated, too, by different world views, perhaps….

I did not follow my father’s path in life – I wonder if they followed theirs. I wonder if they still speak as brazenly of the need to keep people “in their place” as I remember they did that summer of 1964 in little league dugouts. And I wonder if they still express the same contempt – in the same contemptible language – for people like Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. I hope they have changed -I hope they have repudiated their fathers’ ways and found their own….

But, on this sad anniversary, mostly I think of those other kids: Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney – and they were kids, brave kids standing up with people who needed others to stand up with them – and I think of their parents – and I wonder how they bore the loss of their sons – and whether the rightness of their sons’ cause was enough to make their deaths feel less like cruel waste of youth, talent, and love for humanity.

And I wonder how my old friends would feel had Michael or Andrew – or James – been one of their children – killed for no other reason than hate.

4 replies »

  1. Since I came along a little later, my experience was a bit different. Yeah, “nigger” was the accepted word for blacks, but often it wasn’t spoken with the venom associated with conflict like you saw, but was simply how one spoke about those who were obviously a few links down the Great Chain of Being. It was plenty racist, but it was racism of the merely stupid sort, not of the lynching sort. How wonderful that we can talk about that distinction, huh? Of course, there’s no end to the evil that flows from “merely stupid,” is there?

    Of course, I was raised by my grandparents, and they’d been adults during the troubles. My grandfather had accepted that things were how they were, but he was driven to distraction when “they” started showing up on TV. Why do they have to be into everything, he wondered.

    Then there was my father. He wouldn’t have advocated killing blacks and civil rights workers, but if I’m the prosecutor I wouldn’t have wanted him on the jury, either. Hate to say it, but what are you gonna do?

    It’s just surreal sometimes to think about all that has transpired in my lifetime. How far we have come. And yet, how far we still have to go…

  2. Pingback:
  3. Our transition, in South Africa, has been more recent. I won’t go too deeply into it (confidentiality, etc.) but I have been amazed at the capacity for reinvention that many die-hard racists show.

    Local Broederbonders (SA versions of the KKK) have formed close business alliances with ANC members; the very people they used to attack. It’s all about the money in the end and the callous disregard that racists have allows them to stomach their loathing in order to undermine our democracy through corruption and other dodgy dealings.