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New era through an old lens

A Mississippi town's excitement about Barack Obama is tempered by unease. Race was, and is, its defining issue.

June 10, 2008|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA, MISS. — Some places are defined by a single event. Roswell, N.M., will always be known for space aliens, Dallas for assassination. And this little town in the Piney Woods of eastern Mississippi will forever be the site of one of the most brutal crimes of the civil rights era.

But Philadelphia -- situated in a county once dubbed Bloody Neshoba -- can now add a remarkable footnote to its most nefarious chapter: The rural county where three men were killed for trying to help black people vote has cast the majority of its ballots to put a black man in the White House.

Much has changed here since African Americans like Sylvia Campbell, now 74, were told they couldn't vote unless they correctly answered how many bubbles were in a bar of soap.

But much is the same. For all the excitement about Barack Obama and his history-making run for president, there is anxiety, too, because the present is still a hostage to the past. Everything in this slow town of one-way streets and more than 80 churches is viewed through the lens of race. Obama's success makes some people as anxious as it makes others proud.

"It's just the impossibility of it," Campbell said again and again of the presumed Democratic nominee. She had just come from a weeknight Bible study at her church, Mt. Zion United Methodist, which the Ku Klux Klan once burned down. "I know Mississippians. Barack Obama will never change the uneducated whites from the South. I don't care what he does. If he made some of them millionaires, he'll never change them."

Obama's victory in the primaries comes just as Philadelphia prepares to mark the 44th anniversary of the killings that put it reluctantly on the map. Racial tensions are not as violently overt as they were then; today the slights are subtle, from the glance averted on the street to the job application that is never considered. With five months of fierce presidential campaigning ahead -- black against white -- there is a sense that simmering racial tensions are about to boil again.

"What happened all those years ago -- that just keeps coming up," said Doris Gray, 81, who is white. The presence of an out-of-town newspaper reporter in her son's chili cafe not 24 hours after Obama cinched the nomination confirmed her fear that people are going to start poking around in matters better left be.


Around here, that always leads to the same date, June 21, 1964, Father's Day to be exact. Mt. Zion, a black church on the outskirts of town, lay in charred rubble, and three civil rights workers -- two white and one black -- came on the heels of that violence to register black people to vote.

The three were stopped by law enforcement officers in league with the Ku Klux Klan and were jailed for speeding. Released that night, they were chased down a country road and shot, their bodies found six weeks later in an earthen dam outside town.

Eighteen reputed Klansmen went to trial on federal civil rights charges, including Edgar Ray Killen, the part-time Baptist preacher believed to have masterminded the plan. An all-white jury deadlocked in Killen's case. The story was fodder for the 1989 movie "Mississippi Burning," which played right here at the old State Theatre. A new trial held in 2005 finally sent an 80-year-old Killen to prison.

With every turn of events, the media converged on Philadelphia, an otherwise uneventful town with a population of more than 7,000 -- 55% white, 40% black. But no one ever seemed interested in its friendly people, low crime rate, quaint shops or the county fair that brought visitors in from all over.

The way it looked to some, everything boomeranged to the town's racist past. Ronald Reagan chose the fair to announce his 1980 candidacy for president -- Nancy sat on his lap in a wood rocker, red Mississippi mud on her white shoes -- and critics questioned whether he was implicitly condoning racism by deciding to come here at all.


Now there's Obama, Philadelphia's most sensitive subject personified.

"I just wish he'd stop talking about race," said Taneil Long, 30, who owns a nail salon on Beacon Street.

A client walked in, a young black woman, with her daughter in tow. Most of Long's patrons are black, ever since seven years ago when word got out that she was dating a black man. Most of her white clients deserted her. Her white landlady told her to move out. Her cousin from Memphis hasn't spoken to her since.

Long is biracial -- part Vietnamese and part white. A Democrat, she likes what Obama has to say, but the subject of race repels her. It runs against the local grain to discuss the matter openly, and it's hard to avoid it whenever Obama's face comes on TV. In fact, that's when she usually changes the channel.

She doesn't think an Obama presidency would change the minds of people who haven't changed their minds already.

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