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A Reporter Goes Home to a New South

Once he risked death. Now he's offered cookies in Philadelphia, Miss.

June 22, 2005|Karl Fleming | Karl Fleming's new book, "Son of the Rough South," was published last month by PublicAffairs.

I was one of the first two reporters to arrive in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, on the day Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman went missing. I was there as Newsweek's main reporter on the Southern civil rights beat, and I went directly to the courthouse with Claude Sitton of the New York Times to question Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Cecil Price. They admitted arresting and jailing the three civil rights workers but insisted that they'd turned them loose and sent them on their way. We immediately believed the kids had been murdered and that Rainey and Price were involved; the guilt was all over them.

We went back to the courthouse the next morning, and this time Rainey said the kids were probably in Cuba by now and that the alleged disappearance was merely a hoax by the "Northern Jew communists" to make Mississippi look bad. When we passed through the courthouse lobby, we were confronted by an angry mob of Philadelphia citizens whose red-faced leader yelled that they wouldn't be having all this race trouble if it weren't for the "outside agitators" encouraged by members of the "nigger-loving, Jew-communist press."

He said we would be killed if we didn't leave town. Back at our motel, a car carrying four men armed with two shotguns and a quart of moonshine was parked in front of our rooms. We escaped by car to nearby Meridian with them in pursuit.

Forty-one years later, almost to the day, after Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were murdered, I went back to Philadelphia to look in on the trial of Edgar Ray (Preacher) Killen, the alleged Ku Klux Klan mastermind of the plot to kill the three civil rights workers, and to see what had changed. But this time, everyone was as nice as could be. Around the old courthouse, I chatted amiably with the local cops, including a black police officer and a female one, and they said everybody was getting along just fine. At the "media center" set up by the town, the smiling, self-described volunteer "den mother" to the 100 media people said that all they asked of the reporters was that they clean up after themselves. And, she said, local ladies were baking cookies for the reporters.

It could have been a mere performance, an example of surface-deep Southern hospitality masking the same old feelings -- but it wasn't. The truth is that the change in the South in the years since Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were killed has been profound. Not just in Philadelphia -- where Killen was convicted of three counts of manslaughter Tuesday -- but in Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham and the other Deep South cities I visited. A native Southerner myself, I find that the South today is so transformed that it's hard for most people to understand what it was once like.

Forty-three years ago, in the fall of 1962, I was in Oxford, Miss., on the night of the huge white riot that accompanied the forced entry of James Meredith -- a black student -- into the all-white University of Mississippi. The defiant governor, Ross Barnett, had called on all Christian Southerners to resist integration, and 3,000 people showed up at the Ole Miss campus. Their violence killed two people and left 29 U.S. marshals wounded by gunfire. I was tear-gassed, threatened and had four bullet holes stitched in a door frame behind me.

But last week, when I went back to Oxford, nobody was even talking about race. Seventeen percent of the Ole Miss student body is now black, and two recent presidents of the student body were African American. The Confederate flag has been banned.

I was in Jackson, Miss., on the day in 1963 that Medgar Evers, the Mississippi field secretary of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, was assassinated, and I watched cops snatch U.S. flags from the hands of old men, women and children and club them to the ground as they marched in peaceful protest.

This time, though, nobody paid attention to whites and blacks dining together at a suburban mall. A friend and I recalled that of 500,000 eligible black voters in the Mississippi Delta in the early 1960s, fewer than 1% were registered -- because of intimidation, beatings and the bombing and burning of their churches and houses. Now Mississippi has more black elected officials (50%) than any state in the union.

In Birmingham in 1963, Police Commissioner Bull Connor unleashed attack dogs and fire hoses in Kelly Ingram Park on peaceful marchers led by Martin Luther King Jr. But last week, I saw black steel replicas of the fire hoses and dogs in the park, and a statue of King himself, carrying the inscription " ... his dream liberated Birmingham from itself and began a new day of love, mutual respect and cooperation."

I know that for many people who never spent time in the Old South, the changes may not seem so impressive. Racism certainly still exists in the South, though it is more subtly expressed.

But few remember today the degree to which black people in the 1960s South lived in constant fear. That fear is gone. King always said that there would come a day when the South would be the best place in the nation for whites and blacks to live harmoniously together. Going back and seeing more true integration than I have seen anywhere in the country, I came to believe that though problems persist, this day clearly has come. I felt very much at home again.

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