By STEVEN BRODY / guest columnist
There is a dark shadow in the story of Meridian, one darker than perhaps all others, a community shadow that has grown long for more than 40 years. Ironically, the shadow is also an opportunity for community redemption. The Meridian community has the rare opportunity to truly make right a wrong, and in doing so, change its world image.
When the three civil rights workers were killed in 1964, Meridian was cast into an unwanted limelight — namely, ground zero of U.S. civil rights.
At the height of the civil rights movement, 1963-65, three events are considered major cultural landmarks: the 1963 Birmingham church bombing; the 1964 murders of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman; and the 1965 Selma march.
Meridian is, and always will be, a landmark in the U.S. history of civil rights. The limelight is eternal, but Meridian determines what it is that’s in the limelight.
In 1964, Meridianite James Chaney was slaughtered, mutilated, by the fists, boots and bullets of the local Ku Klux Klan. Because he was a black man, he was beaten to a pulp of raw meat. Of the three, it was only James who was tortured and beaten beyond human recognition. Schwerner and Goodman, the white men, were shot, and Chaney was pulverized.
Though the vicious anger that precipitated the slaughter of James Chaney is chillingly inhuman, the 1964 mind of Mississippi would have had it no other way.
Too often, Meridian has responded to its history of racial violence by responding to the limelight, rather than the violence.
In 1964, Mississippi Sen. James Eastland told President Johnson there was no KKK in Meridian, and that the real problem with the disappearance of the civil rights workers was the media. Most other 1964 Mississippi politicians echoed the same, namely, the fault lies with the media — a limelight that won’t go away ...
James Chaney’s grave
Graves are physical markers of mental memories. If the memory of James Chaney is a point of light in the consciousness of U.S. civil rights, then in Meridian it has been a light gone dim. The 1964 Meridian consciousness of racism that killed James Chaney is not different from that of the 21st century that continues to desecrate his gravesite. Utter disrespect continues unabated, from the gun that killed him, to the guns that shoot his image on his tombstone.
For 40 years, Meridian has had the opportunity to make right what was so wrong 40 years ago, by honoring and respecting the gravesite of James Chaney. For way too long, Meridian has chosen to do otherwise.
While bullets, boots and fists put James Chaney in the ground in 1964, ever since then, it has been ignorance in pick-up trucks that pull his tombstone out of the ground. The perpetual degradation of his grave is nothing less than a monstrous example of vile racism. For some, with a person like Chaney, one death is never enough; this is a Meridian consciousness that has continued to manifest deep, violent contempt.
If the people of Meridian had so desired, Chaney’s grave would have been respected, not desecrated for 40 years. Without the collective will of the community, such desecration would not have ruled the day, as it has for 40 years.
There is no redemption without awareness, and youth speak so clearly. For years, Meridian has been a location-of-interest for high school classes touring ‘U.S. civil rights’ sites. Most such tours pass through Meridian, as they should, and visit the grave of James Chaney.
A child’s comment
Many of the comments by students about their experience at Chaney’s grave are unsettling, if not deeply disturbing.
Following is but one student’s report of his school visit to Chaney’s grave; there are many others. Though from the report of a single child, taken from www.lsrhs.net/publications/deepsouth/ index.htm, it likely reflects the sentiments of much of the world:
“A local man involved in the church talked to us at the grave, telling us about Chaney’s death, the burial, and how Chaney has not been able to rest in peace. There had been an eternal flame at the foot of the grave, but racist men had put it out. There was a small oval hole in the stone where Cheney’s picture had been because men had shot it out with rifles.
“A steel support had to keep the large headstone upright because, when the stone was too big to be pulled out of the ground by hand, men had knocked it over with their cars. This persisting aggression proves how horrible people can be and how cowardly they often are. I was appalled that acts as disgusting as these were still common today, when we assume we can rest because the major battles of civil rights have been won.”
Whether Meridian likes it or not, James Chaney is a cultural icon. In some places, the hometown gravesite of a murdered civil rights hero would be considered due much respect. Sadly, it seems that such a place has not been Meridian, or at least not yet. In his brief life, James Chaney pointed to the racist mind of Mississippi and, in his death, he points still.
Clearly, Meridian will only desecrate James Chaney’s memory so long as it needs to do so. Presumably, at some point, Meridian will understand that the memory of James Chaney is worthy of respect and esteem, rather than the lowlife desecration of the past 40 years.
An Internet search of “James Chaney’s grave” reveals a worldwide negative impression of Meridian. The slaughter of Chaney was bad enough, but the 40-year contemptuous desecration of his grave is inexcusable. Meridian will soon have the opportunity to right this wrong, and the world will be watching.
Under the auspices of a foundation bearing his name, efforts are currently being planned for the restoration and rededication of James Chaney’s gravesite. Under the direction of Ben Chaney, brother of James, the James Earl Chaney Foundation has promoted activities to counter the racial hatred that created Meridian’s summer of 1964.
The restoration of James Chaney’s grave is an opportunity for Meridian to shine in the limelight, rather than complain about it. Ben Chaney can be reached through the Web site, www.jecf.org.
Soon may be a good time for Meridian to begin a community dialogue: Does Meridian want to continue to be remembered as a stain on the consciousness of human rights? Or does Meridian choose respect?
Redemption knocks at Meridian’s door, and shines a very bright light.
Steven Brody, a Meridian native who lives in northern California, is a licensed psychotherapist, currently focused in forensic mental health. He is also a college instructor, writer and stained-glass artist.