Ending 50 Years of Silence About Mississippi's Freedom Summer

For decades, black and white residents struggled to discuss the murders of three young civil-rights workers on June 21, 1964.
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Leroy Clemons leads a tour through Philadelphia, Mississippi. (Ellen Ann Fentress)

JACKSON, Miss. — When a boy with an overwrought dream life was brought in to see Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist noted that the boy’s father didn’t dream at all, or so he claimed. The son, Jung concluded, felt compelled to do the mental work for both himself and his stifled father, in a sort of generational psychic balancing act. A parallel act is playing out here with the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi 1964 Freedom Summer this year. I’m a member of the cohort of Southerners in our fifties and sixties from once-notorious places. A number of us are drawn to returning to our hometowns’ unsavory truths, their discussion no longer off-limits after 50 years. Yes, it has taken this long.

However healthy the recent public ceremonies of racial apology have been—Philadelphia, Jackson, and the University of Mississippi have all had well-attended earnest ones to mark milestone anniversaries—they are a generalized, less personally searing way to confront history. The private excoriations I’m talking about don’t aim for—or produce—the outward social good of the community-scale efforts carried out by admirable groups in the state like the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation, the Mississippi Center for Justice, the Neshoba Youth Coalition, and HOPE. Even so, I have to believe the one-human, one-story truth-tellings of late are necessary. Maybe the public efforts had to happen first to make broaching the personal experience of the siege atmosphere of our childhood possible. That’s how psychological growth works, after all; as a patient develops a stronger, healthier sense of self, the capacity to examine her pain and failure increases. That applies to cultures along with people. First apologize, then face the for-whats.

Whatever the psychological underpinning, individuals black and white are examining the anachronistic puzzle of the mid-century mindset. Confronting the thought process of that time matters. That’s the point: to understand the people and culture to which we were hazy witnesses. Whether the adults spoke a word about the struggle or not—most especially if no words were uttered in the tense, dissolving assumptions of our childhoods—we absorbed the atmosphere. Our communities’ parameters contoured our hearts and heads.

Leroy Clemons grew up in Philadelphia, the east Mississippi town synonymous with the covered-up murders and burials of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three young civil-rights workers, as Freedom Summer began. He was two that year. “The only thing people knew about Philadelphia, Mississippi, was those murders, and they knew more about it than we did,” Clemons, now 52, recalled of the post-1964 years of his childhood. As a teenager, he quietly began reading books on the crime. He was astounded to see recognizable names—including then-deputy sheriff and Klansman Cecil Price, who pulled the trio over in his patrol car and deposited them at their Klan execution site—and to learn about the role these local adults had played. “I was reading about the fathers of some of the people I was friends with,” said Clemons, who is black. “Even Cecil Price himself. I had no idea. They were always nice. Always. I have no memories of them speaking disrespectfully, ever.” Nothing changed publicly. The subject remained taboo.

In the late 1980s, white Philadelphia native Dick Molpus, scion of a leading lumber family in the town, was Mississippi’s elected secretary of state. In 1989, for the quarter-century anniversary of the murders, he organized a public apology on behalf of his hometown. He received a share of praise but angry letters and telephone threats as well. “Do you have to hack off every white person in the state?” asked his weary political adviser. The aide wasn’t far off target: When Molpus ran for governor in 1995, he lost not just statewide but even in his home county. It was almost a decade longer—at a 40-year anniversary ceremony of contrition in 2004 attended by family members of the murdered young men—when the town of Philadelphia’s finally reached the moment of collective exhale. To the exact day 12 months later, the accused mastermind Edgar Ray Killen, then 80, was convicted and sentenced to three consecutive 20-year sentences.

Last year, the white-majority town of Philadelphia reelected James Young, its first black mayor, to a second term. As for Clemons, he volunteers to take anyone interested on a step-by-step car tour of the sites tied to the June 21, 1964, murders, a local-history version of the Stations of the Cross. The day I took the tour, we tracked the tragic chronology at six stops inside the city limits and out into the hilly country two-lanes of Neshoba County, where Schwerner, 24, Chaney, 21, and Goodman, 20, were executed on Rock Cut Road. Clemons makes use of new anecdotes he collected at the Neshoba County Courthouse at Killen’s trial. In the hallway, a number of locals took Clemons aside and shared long-repressed personal experiences related to the event. He has also been struck by other information that has newly come to light, such as a recent Jackson newspaper story on how it was likely a black Philadelphia man—a childhood friend of then-sheriff Lawrence Rainey—who alerted Price to the activists’ arrival when their blue Ford Fairlane station wagon cruised into town on that Sunday. (Clarion Ledger reporter Jerry Mitchell’s story drew on old FBI documents.)

Clemons believes Philadelphia’s task today is “the hard conversation about race.” That prospect is still not totally tension-free, according to Vivienne Davis, whom I met just off Philadelphia’s postcard-perfect town square, at a furniture store-turned-cafe. She and her husband Wayne settled near town after retiring, drawn to the area by Mr. Davis’s childhood memories of summer visits from Chicago to his Mississippi grandfather’s farm. Ms. Davis, 61, had no previous connection to Mississippi before she moved here recently from Colorado. She notices that local whites will ask if she lived in Philadelphia during the 1960s, and visibly relax when they hear she did not. “There are a lot of white people who want to talk about it, but they don’t like to talk to people about it who were here. It’s an open wound,” she said. “Because we’re not from here, I think people are more comfortable bringing it up.”

An FBI poster for the missing men (Wikimedia Commons)

Molpus, now 64, has left politics and divides his time between his family’s business and nonprofit work for racial reconciliation and public-school improvements. He recently spoke at my church in Jackson about the experience of being a 14-year-old in a comfortable white family in 1964. He recounted how white Philadelphians were quoted explaining away their scant interest in the search for the workers’ bodies by the fact that the Baptist church had a busy summer schedule of programs in progress. The state Department of Archives and History has enlisted him to repeat the talk in a public lecture this week at the historic Old Capitol in downtown Jackson. The lesson he gleaned from the thundering 1964 silence: “If you don’t use your influence, it’s almost as if you didn’t have it. That’s what I saw in my hometown. At the moment people were being beaten, and churches burned, and people put in jail and killed, people were silent.”

In my hometown of Greenwood, two hours northwest of Philadelphia, a similar urge to air old stories is evident. Mary Carol Criss Miller operates the blog Daughter of the Delta, doling out installments of her reporter-mother’s memoirs. Sara Criss was the Mississippi Delta correspondent for the Memphis Commercial Appeal for 30 years beginning in the late 1950s. For a few years, the work was a sleepy routine of shipping engagement photos and banquet write-ups to Memphis on the late-afternoon bus. Then the civil-rights struggle shook up her job. Greenwood earned a reputation as a mean battleground. With her home equipped with a teletype machine, dark room, and photo-transmission machinery, Criss opened her house to national and international journalists on assignment, who sent out the almost-daily installment of Greenwood’s failures. Journalists ranging from the BBC, The New York Times, and the Associated Press used the Criss house. “I have an 8-year-old’s memory of everyone being very nice and very busy,” Miller recalled.

Vivienne and Wayne Davis and Lenard Ingram in downtown Philadelphia. (Ellen Ann Fentress)

Daughter of the Delta’s source material is an unpublished memoir that Miller only perfunctorily acknowledged when her mother completed it in 1991. Two years after her mother’s death in 2009, Miller began writing Daughter of the Delta, doling out Sara Criss’s eyewitness account of the events and betrayals of Greenwood at that time, as well as other events from her life. The site runs against Sara Criss’s stated wishes: She had specified that her memoir was for family only, another sign of how publicly off-limits the subject matter of Greenwood’s turmoil was in her mother’s thinking. “She could have told you everyone who was in the Klan,” said Miller, a 60-year-old family-practice physician. But she believes her mother underestimated the historic value of the account. “I couldn’t just let it go into an archive somewhere and never get out.” Miller struck some names from posts that named local Klan members. Descendants are still in the Greenwood area, she said. “That’s no way to find out.”

Another Greenwood resident, Sylvester Hoover, has watched his tour business swell. Hoover, 57, is the youngest of nine siblings, and the only one not to move to Chicago at age 15. His parents sent their children north because they “didn’t want us to get stuck in the cotton fields,” Hoover explained. His sisters actually left for Chicago at 13, to avoid the potential for sexual assault. But by the time Hoover turned 15 in 1972, integration, though imperfect, had occurred. His siblings were incredulous that he would stay in Mississippi. “It’s not like it was, and it’s home to me,” he replied. Besides Delta Blues Legends Tours, he runs Hoover’s Grocery, which includes a coin laundry, and the Delta Bar and Grill. His tours draw a share of white Southerners of my age to Baptist Town, a traditionally black neighborhood. When Hoover explains how vagrancy laws forced black residents to work as day laborers or else hide out during work hours, white customers often say they didn’t know. Neither did younger blacks, for that matter, he said. “Blacks didn’t talk about it. They were scared they’d be in trouble, and they didn’t think out of the box. They didn’t know any better.”

Interest in Hoover’s tours rose after The Help filmed in town in 2010. Even so, he believes people are increasingly hungry to learn about the details of racial history. It is not unusual for white visitors to feel prompted to apologize to him for Jim Crow, Hoover said. But as I took the Baptist Town tour in my hometown, the urge to apologize eluded me. In fact, I had a glimpse of what white adults in my parents’ generation must have felt, accused and reflexively defensive as an incensed world watched. It was a personal lesson in how the human mind is built to deflect unwelcome information.

As Hoover described the vagrancy laws, I noticed with interest and a little embarrassment, my reluctance to believe what he was saying. Wasn’t his description of forced labor at the very least an exaggeration? Why my instant resistance? It was illuminating to see how automatically my mind, despite my Obama-voting, public-school-volunteering political correctness, wanted to resist. I wanted to deny information that further indicted my white ancestors as wrongdoers. It wasn’t just my reaction; taking the tour with me was my Greenwood-born cousin who now lives in the Atlanta area. A fellow guilty liberal, she too admitted to an amazing and hearty inner defensiveness. The instinct to cling to tribe extends deep into the human DNA. The way my cousin and I reacted is a logical evolutionary response. But this prehistoric instinct for solidarity can be damaging and dangerous in modern life.

Collective generational memory is just as human a response as is defensiveness. Sociologists hold that each generation frames the world through shared, collective memories of events that occurred during their transition from childhood to adulthood. Howard Schuman, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Michigan, formulated the “critical-years hypothesis” to explore the way each generation frames the world through its particular set of memories.

During the civil-rights era, adults’ denial and silence stemmed from fear and trauma, Schuman told me. “People alive at the time may have denied it and tried not to be aware of it,” he told me. “Collective forgetting is the opposite of collective memory.” Those of us undergoing the crucial transition from adolescence at the time were stamped by the explosive silence around us, which articulated more than words ever could about closed ranks and paralyzing fear. That era still shapes us, a heartbeat that persists, then and now, consciously noted or not.

But most of the residents marking the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer are too young to remember it. Almost 75 percent of Mississippi’s population is younger than 54. There are fewer of us that lived it—including those of us who did so through the film of childhood—than were born afterward.

On the Philadelphia square, elementary-school teacher Courtni Duncan, 26, works Saturdays at Kademi, a gift shop, where she sometimes waits on civil-rights tourists. When Duncan googled her town’s name, references to Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman obviously came up. Yet two other stories did too, she pointed out: Killen’s conviction in 2005, and Mayor Young’s 2009 election. “You don’t want to be marked for something that happened forever ago,” she said.

Truth is generational in Mississippi—no different than beyond the state lines. After all, Jung’s young patient began to sleep soundly again himself, once his obscured psychic business with his father began to mend. Time inevitably moved on. 

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Ellen Ann Fentress is a writer based in Jackson, Mississippi. Her work has been featured in The New York Times,Wilson Quarterly, and Oxford American.

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