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.”

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

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