Meridian Star

Local News

June 15, 2014

Civil rights movement 50 years later

MERIDIAN —     A half-century after the world turned its eyes on Mississippi as a search ensued for three missing civil rights workers, leaders of the civil rights movement will be in east Mississippi to mark that anniversary and the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    Justice came late or not at all for many who fought against the push for voter registration for the African-American community, including many who were involved in the killings of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney of Meridian; Andrew Goodman, and Michael "Mickey" Schwerner.

    Helping bring one of those involved in their killing to justice more than 40 years later was Mississippi investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell, who since 1989 has written about old cases from the civil rights movement era. The award-winning reporter's work has resulted in putting at least four KKK members in jail, including Edgar Ray Killen, who was convicted of manslaughter in 2005 for his role in the killings of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.

    Mitchell will be the guest speaker on Tuesday when local tourism officials unveil Lauderdale County's Civil Rights Trail, which will feature 18 stops throughout the city and county. In a telephone interview Mitchell said his reporting on the old cases that resulted in convictions has been rewarding to him.

    "For all of us, as journalists — probably 90 percent of what we write, we write about it and nothing may happen," Mitchell said. "Then there are rare occasions where we are able to write about something and something does happen. It's certainly feels very good."

    Mitchell will talk about the killings, which occurred in Neshoba County but involved Lauderdale County suspects as well.

    "What a lot of folks may or may not realize is that most of the Klansmen who were involved in the killing of those three young men were from Meridian," Mitchell said.

    Even though justice should have come much sooner than it did for many of those involved in the crimes, Mitchell said, families of victims are glad to see it finally happen, even if it is decades later.

    "Even though from their perspective, you would like to have seen it earlier, they certainly do welcome it coming," Mitchell said.

    Mitchell's work has also sent him along the lecture circuit, much of which has been at universities. He finds that there is curiosity among young people, but not a lot of substantive knowledge of the civil rights movement.

    "Young people have been very engaged. A lot of it, to be honest, they don't know. They are unaware in general.  As someone put it, the narrative of the civil rights movement goes like this: 'Rosa Parks sat down on a bus. Martin Luther King Jr. stood up and of course, later was assassinated," Mitchell said. "That becomes the narrative, the short version of it. That becomes what they know about the movement and what's unfortunate about that is it leaves out a lot of people."

    For example, Chaney had already made some sacrifices for the movement before his death, Mitchell said.

    "It had cost him already. The principal didn't want him wearing a NAACP button and he got kicked out of school," Mitchell said. "He and others like him were willing to stand up and in his case, paying the ultimate price."

    Despite its dark past, Mitchell said the state has made progress.

    "You can certainly say that Mississippi has come a long way in the past half-century. In 1964, the number of African-Americans who were able to vote was few," Mitchell said. "Today, Mississippi has more African-American elected officials than any other state. So that doesn't mean that Mississippi doesn't have work to do, but it certainly does reflect progress."

    The event  will start with Mitchell's talk on Tuesday at 8 a.m. at the MSU Riley Center on 22nd Avenue. A light breakfast will be served and the event is free and open to the public. Immediately following the program, participants are encouraged to walk to Meridian's African American Business District, just two blocks away, for the unveiling of the Meridian Civil Rights Trail, according to Dede Mogollon, executive director, Visit Meridian.

    Among the 18 stops on the trail is the building that houses the Meridian Post Office, on the corner of 9th Street and 22nd Avenue, which formally housed the federal courthouse where those accused in the three killings stood trial.

    However, what many people don't know, she said, is that it is the courthouse where James Meredith first filed a lawsuit to be allowed to attend the University of Mississippi. Meredith eventually became the first African-American to enroll at Ole Miss, but it was not without controversy and violence on the Oxford campus.

    There will also be a marker in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse to call attention to the history of African-American voter registration, poll taxes and literacy exams, Mogollon said.

    Also this week, the National Education and Empowerment Coalition, Inc. and the cities of Philadelphia and Meridian are cosponsoring the Fourth Annual National Civil Rights Conference.  The conference will be held in Meridian at the Riley Center and at Meridian City Hall.  Some events are open only to those who have registered.

    Among those is a program being held today at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church to commemorate the sacrifices of  Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. For more information on the conference, go to civilrightsconference.com.

    Other events include:

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