After reading countless newspaper articles misrepresenting Ben Chaney, the Freedom Ride for Justice 2004 and Ben Chaney's actions at the 40th Anniversary Commemoration of the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner this past summer, I felt compelled to add some clarification from my perspective as a young adult who accompanied Ben to the Mt. Zion Memorial Service and on the Freedom Ride for Justice 2004. Ben constantly encouraged us to use our voices and I feel a responsibility to voice my perspective on this matter. For more information and relevant news clippings, please visit the James Earl Chaney Foundation's Freedom Summer 2004 webpage at jecf.org/freedomsummer/freedomsummer2004.
My first attempt at addressing these issues caused some confusion due to my presentation of it as a response to an article written by activist Ira Grupper. So, I have revised my commentary to reflect its intent to counter the reports quoted by Mr. Grupper in his article. It was never intended to suggest that Mr. Grupper was defending the inaccurate reports.
Furthermore, new developments in the Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner case and the apparent problems within the Philadelphia Coalition have added to the critical need for open and honest dialogue. Without truth, as divisive and hurtful as it can be, there is no justice, no reconciliation.
At the beginning of the Freedom Ride for Justice 2004, Ben Chaney informed the participants that we would have a decision to make later in the trip. He informed us that there would be two memorial services for Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. One would be the traditional memorial service at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church which had been held annually for the past 39 years. The other would be a larger commemoration at the coliseum in Neshoba County organized by the Philadelphia Coalition, a multiracial coalition of citizens calling for justice in the Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner murder case. Ben gave us two options: we could go to both services or we could go to one or the other and later register voters that day in remembrance of the trio's work. A small group of the new Freedom Riders' asked Ben for his opinion, however, he respectfully declined. He wanted us to make the decision and we did.
Even before we began hearing controversy about the Philadelphia Coalition, the group decided that we could best honor the trio by registering voters and given a choice, we wanted to be at the traditional Mt. Zion Service. It is after all sacred ground. Mt. Zion is the Church that was burned and its members terrorized by the Klan after Chaney and Schwerner had recruited it as a freedom school. It was the fire-ravaged Mt. Zion that Chaney and Schwerner, accompanied by newly arrived Andrew Goodman, visited before being arrested and hidden in jail while the lynch mob that took their lives was organized.
We felt that, based on reports we were hearing, that the Philadelphia Coalition (well meaning and genuine as I'm sure many of them are) had co-opted the Commemoration from Mt. Zion and the community of Philadelphia. It seemed that the Coliseum service had ballooned into more of a publicity stunt to clear the name of Philadelphia/Neshoba County and promote commerce and tourism than a commemoration of the lives of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. This was evidenced by the participation of Governor Haley Barbour in the Coliseum ceremony and the tacky funeral fans at the Church Service which touted Philadelphia/Neshoba County Tourism and Commerce.
This notion has been further corroborated by comments from members of the Coalition in reference to the recent arrest and pending trial of Edgar Ray Killen. Jim Prince, editor of the Neshoba Democrat and member of the Coalition, recently opined in reference to seeking justice in the case, that "if you can't embrace the call because it's the right thing to do, then do it because it's good for business." If the goal is justice and reconciliation, well then, "good for business" just isn't good enough. An almost identical comment was made in another editorial which blamed "cracks in the Coalition" on outsider, white liberal activists. If the Coalition was based on the superficial motives of economic and commercial progress, then cracks were inevitable.
After participating in a moving service at Tougaloo College on Sunday, June 20th, the group made its way to Mt. Zion. What has been reported about our experience at Mt. Zion has largely been misrepresented and mischaracterized. First, let me address the AP article that was authored by Shelia Byrd and distributed in several different papers across the country. Mrs. Byrd accompanied us on the majority of the Freedom Ride, befriended several of the Freedom Riders, and even participated in some of the voter registration efforts. So, we were obviously perplexed and disturbed by her final write-up of the trip which was largely biased toward negative aspects of the trip. In specific reference to the Mt. Zion service, Byrd reported that the group "arrived late and they couldn't get in. Chaney was enraged. He ranted. He shouted. He denounced the organizers to local reporters. The he left, his volunteers in tow, to register voters in town." First of all, Byrd did not even arrive at the service until we were leaving. She had attended the Coliseum service and she was late.
Other parts of the article were either misrepresentative or just false. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, her editors may very well have been responsible for the final product as has been suggested by a Freedom Rider who stayed in touch with her. I hope this is the case. To straighten out all the twisted stories in this article would take a completely separate commentary. If anyone would like further clarification they can feel free to contact me at email@example.com. The original article by Byrd can be found on the web at www.youthvote.org/news/newsdetail.cfm?newsid=437 [Article no longer available at that URL].
Ira Grupper included these quotes about the Memorial Service in his commentary:
Reports the Neshoba Democrat: "Ben Chaney of New York, brother of James Chaney, one of the workers killed, boycotted the commemoration and, in a five-minute tirade before television cameras on the church grounds, claimed the coalition 'used Negroes to do their bidding' to pull off the event. Leroy Clemons, co-chairman of the coalition and president of the Neshoba County NAACP, said Chaney's demand to be seated along with 80 students inside the church came out of the blue." The Neshoba Democrat also states: "Without the Philadelphia Coalition, backed by the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church Board of Trustees, those radicals would have been performing for the media and telling THEIR STORY [my emphasis- I.G.] not ours." He (Jim Prince) editorialized on June 30th: "Some criticized more privately than publicly the work of The Philadelphia Coalition, the 30-member, multi-ethnic organization that planned the commemoration, without realizing just what its sheer existence prevented. Behind the scenes a fierce battle was raging between the coalition and radicals who wanted to come in and take over the observance, to proclaim that nothing has changed in Philadelphia, Miss., and to use that lie as a fund raiser."
I was part of the group of young people who Ben Chaney "demanded to be seated with." Ben Chaney did not demand to be seated with us and we were not late. Our arrival was not out of the blue. We as a group of young people decided not to attend the Coliseum Service. Ben did not make that decision for us. And besides, we had been expected at the Coliseum Service and organizers expected that many of the participants at the Coliseum Service would also attend the Mt. Zion Service. In fact, the Mt. Zion Service was delayed in order to wait for the arrival of dignitaries from the Coliseum Service, proving that the Freedom Riders could not possibly have been late. We were there long before those folks arrived.
Ben was upset that organizers were limiting the number of people who could enter the sanctuary at Mt. Zion for the Church Service because he said that in years past anyone who could squeeze in was welcome even if they had to sit in window sills or stand lining the walls. Ben simply stated that he would not enter the sanctuary unless we were allowed to come with him. Again, he did not demand to be seated with us.
A particular organizer rudely responded saying that he didn't care what Ben Chaney wanted, we would not be allowed in. The young people were willing to accept that and sit in the fellowship hall. We didn't want Ben to miss out on the Service. However, Ben felt unwelcome for obvious reasons and thought that we could honor and memorialize Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in a different way.
We decided as a group to leave and honor Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner by continuing their work and registering voters in Philadelphia and Meridian. We were welcomed enthusiastically by the communities in Mississippi where we registered voters and we are looking forward to longer return trips to those communities.
Granted, I am not privy to all the interactions between Ben Chaney and the Philadelphia Coalition which preceded the Memorial Services. However, I am disturbed by the discrepancies between what I saw with my own eyes and what has been reported not just about the Mt. Zion Service but about the whole Freedom Ride for Justice 2004.
Ben is certainly militant (meaning pro-active) and was skeptical of the Philadelphia Coalition, but Ben loves his native Mississippi and acknowledges that progress has been made. It is unfair to characterize Ben Chaney as a radical outside agitator from New York. Isn't that the mindset that helped lead to the deaths of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner?
Ben was nowhere more comfortable than he was in his native Mississippi, even despite the upsetting experience at the Mt. Zion Service and the painful history that lingers in Mississippi. He didn't spend his whole time ranting and raving in front of cameras at the Church Service as I have seen reported in more than one article.
Ben and the young people with him interacted with many of the Civil Rights Veterans in attendance including Hollis Watkins, Charlie Cobb, and Ed Whitfield. We greeted and paid our respects to Mrs. Carolyn Goodman and her son. We were not 'party crashers' and did not go to Mt. Zion for publicity. Ben Chaney did not go to Mt. Zion to proclaim nothing had changed in Neshoba County or Mississippi and he was certainly not there for financial gain. We were there to honor Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, but felt unwelcome by the organizers.
I don't understand the statement that "those radicals would have been performing for the media and telling THEIR STORY not ours." I thought the Memorial Services were supposed to be about the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner story not the Philadelphia Coalition's story. In what way is the Philadelphia Coalition any more connected to Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner and the Civil Rights Movement than Ben Chaney or any other Civil Rights Veteran one might deem a radical?
Some of the young people that accompanied Ben on his Freedom Ride for Justice 2004 are currently assisting Ben in planning future Freedom Rides focused on registering voters, strengthening and building community and national coalitions and raising awareness about the expiration of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2007.
Ben, myself and my fellow young adults who are planning these future Freedom Rides want to contribute to a new youth/young-adult movement that will be self-sustaining. We want a new generation of youth and young adults to understand and commit to carrying on the legacy of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner and all those unsung youth and young adults who marched, sat-in, waded-in, prayed-in, registered voters, organized and educated communities and who risked or sacrificed their lives for freedom, justice and equality. We hope that Civil Rights Veterans will support Ben Chaney and this new generation of Freedom Riders. Though ultimately it is an individual's responsibility to make a commitment to the struggle and, the knowledge and wisdom that the Civil Rights veterans have gained from their experiences is invaluable to the next generation of Freedom Riders.
Johnson City, Tennessee
Copyright © 2005, Jared Story