Today is the 50th anniversary of the day that the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mikey Schwerner were found buried in earthen dam, just southwest of Philadelphia, Mississippi. The three young men had been registering African-Americans to vote as part of Freedom Summer, a project that brought thousands of young people to the South to teach and register African American voters. By the end of the first week of their disappearance, national press picked up the story; by the next, the FBI had gotten involved. Navy Seabees combed local swamps while residents watched. Many of the Mississipians watching told reporters that the disappearance was a stunt, that the boys were in New York or Cuba, "just laughing at us." They stopped talking about laughter when the bodies were found.
If you're about to stop reading because you think I'm about to write a oh-my-racism-was-so-horrible post - nope, not a chance. Because racism is horrible, and it's a present-day problem. Our problem. My problem. Your problem. And it's being forgotten by a lot of us, except when something happens and it gets dug up again, like those bodies in the dam.
Many African Americans heard this history as children; others didn't hear specifics, only dire warnings not to go to this or that neighborhood after dark. Some of us never knew about the realities of everyday racism, shielded by privilege, bubbled in mostly-white communities, taught a smattering of MLK and JFK and Brown vs. Board of Ed. What we're taught in school isn't enough. Recently, a young person asked me what the riots of 1968 were, and we live in Baltimore, one of the riot epicenters. He'd no idea that Baltimore pools and movie theatres were still segregated in the 1960s, nor did his father, who was in high school at the time, old enough to know. Except we didn't know, many of us white folks who think ourselves decent; we were shielded, we had no eyes to see.
Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were ambushed on a county road, driven to a remote location, then executed by KKK members and other community residents. Their only crime was daring to register American citizens to vote. It's estimated that several people complicit in these executions were never charged. Some may be alive still today. Eventually, the federal government prosecuted 18 individuals for the murders of the civil rights workers; 7 were convicted. None of them served more than 7 years.
The picture's not all bleak; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed while the FBI was still searching for the bodies, followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Edgar Ray Killen, one of the killers of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, was finally prosecuted successfully (in 2005). The only part of this story I like is that he was prosecuted because of new evidence compiled by an investigative journalist, a teacher, and three students who compiled evidence into a documentary for the National History Day contest. (I love stories where education brings justice.) He'd been freed due to a deadlocked jury 40 years earlier; one juror later said she couldn't convict a preacher. More than 1,000 people protested to have the case re-opened.
I don't want to write yet another white-person-wrings-their-hands-about-racism post. But I do want to hold up a mirror of our history, from the early 1960s and beyond:
In 1961, the Freedom Riders rode to desegregate interstate buses in the South. (It had been illegal since 1946, but the federal government hadn't enforced the law.) They were met with beatings, firebombs and death threats. The first set of Freedom Riders never completed their ride; the second wave of Freedom Riders, mostly students, all signed their wills before leaving to ride the bus. It was that serious. Think about them, the next time you congratulate yourself for hastagging a slogan or signing an online petition. (A film on the Freedom Riders is available free watch it here.)
In September 1962, the governor himself blocked the registration of Air Force veteran James Meredith at University of Mississippi. Riots broke out; federal marshalls had to escort Mr. Meredith onto campus. He spent the rest of his college career shunned by most of the Ole Miss students on campus.
In June 1963, lawyer and activist Medgar Evers was assasinated in his driveway. His murder would not be successfully prosecuted for another 30 years.
And summer 1964 was Freedom Summer, an effort built on years of tireless activism by local African Americans. Thousands of students came to the South to register voters and teach in Freedom Schools. And three young men- Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were killed on the second day. (A film on Freedom Summer is available free streaming, watch it here.)
The film Mississippi Burning shows FBI agents as heroes and crusaders, but actually, J. Edgar Hoover was no fan of civil rights for African Americans. President Lyndon Johnson had to threaten Hoover indirectly with political reprisal to motivate him to send agents to investigate the civil rights workers disappearances. These weren't the first civil rights workers to "disappear". The investigators found eight more bodies of missing men before they found the three young men. Activists tried to get federal attention about the disappearnces for months.
In 1966, after graduating from Ole Miss, James Meredith started a solo March Against Fear. He wanted to highlight the continuing problems of blacks who lived in the Mississippi Delta. He was shot on the second day. He survived, and later became a lawyer. He was invited back to Ole Miss for the commemoration of desegregation; they erected a statue in his honor. The statue of James Meredith was vandalized in 2014, dragged through campus with a noose around the neck.
The grave of James Chaney, Freedom Summer activist whose body was found on this day 50 years ago, has been vandalized many times during the past 50 years.
There's much death and blood and fear and determination in these stories; it's no different from any other chapter of U.S. history. And like a lot of U.S. history, it's in danger of being forgotten. A student reportedly once asked James Meredith if he'd "rushed" a fraternity while he was at Ole Miss. The idea of armed marshalls accompanying Meredith to class, then Meredith pulling a few frat pranks, is a gruesomely funny picture, but there's nothing funny about the student's ignorant question.
It's all our history, we have to remember it, and we have to face it. Otherwise, it's all bodies buried in an earthen dam. No declaration of "post-racial America" can cover this. We forget, then something happens, and here come the memes in our Facebook feeds. It's as if the collective white American consciousness is a third-time divorcee who wonders why his marriages have all failed, and doesn't see the common denominator is, well, him. We're like the girl who keeps wondering why all the guys she dates are jerks, and overlooks the fact that she chose them. So we say, Wow, racism still exists! How hateful these racists are, we say. Except racism lives in us, too, and if we forget that, racism has won. Again.
These things didn't happen only in the South; residents of Milwaukee, WI fought desegregation of the school system just as bitterly, along with many other Northern cities. Try googling the nearest big city to where you live and the word "desegregation." "Baltimore and desegregation", "Cleveland and desegregation"...you might be surprised at the results, and find some history that your community doesn't want to remember.
I didn't shoot those boys, I didn't protest desegregation- I was just learning to walk in the early 1960s. Maybe you weren't even born. But I don't get a pass on facing this history, and neither do you, because it's our history, too. The fact is, it was 50 years ago, but it's not 500 years ago. To hear some white folks talk, civil rights magically happened universally across the US, just because JFK put it in his inagural speech. The truth is a tad more complicated.
(And If you think JFK was a civil rights crusader, listen to the White House archive tapes of his meetings about the James Meredith situation, and his conversations with the Governor of Mississippi. It will be enlightening. And depressing.)
We've made progress, but there's still a lot to be done, and no path forward is forged by forgetting all that's gone before. This is our history; if we don't remember, we keep forgetting, and it keeps happening.
It's all bodies in an earthen dam, and it has to be dug up.
There are many, many documentaries and articles on the topics and events in this post. If you want to know more, you can check out two documentaries: Freedom Summer, watch it here and Freedom Riders, watch it here. The film Mississippi Burning tells the general story of the investigation, but has many historical inaccuracies and takes a lot of dramatic license. The film Ghosts of Mississippi tells the story of the successful prosecution of Medgar Evans' killer, 30 years after the fact. It has inaccuracies also, but fewer than Burning.)
These are not definitive, but a place to start, and widely available for free streaming.