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.)