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Past Meets Future in Mississippi : A New 'Freedom Ride' Marks Rights Slayings

June 22, 1989|LEE MAY | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. — Mary Beckett of Philadelphia, Pa., climbed off a Greyhound bus into a blazing sun and gazed at the little brick church that three civil rights activists had visited the night they were murdered exactly 25 years ago.

"It gives me chills," said Beckett, a 65-year-old black woman, one of hundreds who rode buses here from around the country and will leave today in a "freedom ride" caravan to New York via Washington. "I get goose bumps knowing that people could be so mean to take a person's life like that. It's too much, just too much."

Trying to eliminate the chills, the simmering outrage and a gnawing sense of unfinished business that surrounds the killings of James E. Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael H. Schwerner, Mississippians marked the anniversary with what amounts to part apology, part hope and part effort to marshal troops for the continuing civil rights struggle.

The commemoration included speeches from state and national dignitaries and members of the slain men's families, a picnic and the placement of a torch at Chaney's grave in nearby Meridian.

It included what many black Mississippians have long waited to hear--an official expression of compassion. Secretary of State Dick Molpus told the crowd at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church: "We deeply regret what happened here 25 years ago. We wish we could undo it. We are profoundly sorry that they are gone. We wish we could bring them back."

That apology came only a few days after the state's attorney general, Mike Moore, said that he was considering reopening the case after a quarter of a century.

Taken together, these developments likely will help galvanize civil rights activists in Mississippi and across the country--activists who believe that recent Supreme Court rulings represent renewed attacks on civil rights.

However, as Mississippi's past meets its future, some white people in this town of 8,000--30% black--criticized the commemoration, believing it was just another unfair focus on the state's bad, old side, along with last year's much-criticized movie about the killings, "Mississippi Burning."

"They ought to let bygones be bygones," said a white man who sat in a brown Ford pickup, next to the Mars department store in downtown Philadelphia. "I don't think the city owes any apology." The man, who refused to give his name, said he was "born and raised with blacks and never had a moment's trouble with them," adding that some of the news stories about the area made the world "think that every person in Philadelphia was a killer."

'They're All Lies'

Another white man charged that news reports and the movie "are trying to make Neshoba County worse than it is. They're all lies. Half of it wasn't true."

Black people reject such arguments, hailing the commemoration. Back at the church, Walter Gardner, a 48-year-old insurance executive from neighboring Newton County, said: "For those interested in moving forward, it will heal wounds."

The wounds are deep. The bullet-riddled bodies of Chaney, a black 21-year-old Meridianite, and white New Yorkers Goodman, 20, and Schwerner, 24, were found 44 days after they disappeared June 21, buried in an earthen dam five miles from here.

As part of their voter registration efforts, they had visited the church, which had been burned by klansmen. After they left the site, Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price arrested them on speeding charges. The three were released about 10:30 p.m., after Chaney paid a $20 fine.

When the three men were reported missing the next day, County Sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey said: "If they're missing, they just hid out somewhere, trying to get a lot of publicity, I figure."

Several area residents described the times in horrifying terms--shootings through house windows, intimidation on the streets.

"I remember when you couldn't walk these streets because white folks would get drunk and knock you off the streets," said a 69-year-old retired lumber worker.

Recalling the era, Gardner described it as rife with "sultry fear, anger and sadness."

He said that black people, incensed at Rainey's remarks, "were hoping and praying that those bodies would be found so that the 'hoax' would not be perpetrated."

Even though the bodies were found, after massive searches, many still feel that justice was denied.

Mississippi dropped murder charges involving 19 white men--local law enforcement officials and members of the Ku Klux Klan--but the men were tried on civil rights charges in federal court. Seven were convicted, one pleaded guilty, eight were acquitted and the cases of three ended in mistrials. According to local residents, most are still alive.

Atty. Gen. Moore said a few days ago that he is rereading the 2,800-page transcript of the federal trial and is trying to talk with some witnesses in an effort to determine if there is a case worth pursuing.

He said he also will have to consider whether it would be "in the best interest of the people of this state" to reopen the case.

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