It was 40 years ago, less a couple of months, that I attended the first memorial service for James, Mickey, and Andy. I had arrived in Mississippi only days before their bodies were dug out of that earthen dam outside Philadelphia, so I never knew them. The service was held in a packed Meridian church and is still remembered for Dave Dennis's angry, heart-broken cry, "I am sick and tired of going to memorial services...."
Soon we "COFOs" some folks called us "FOCOs" moved into the two-story cinder-block building Charles Evers had run his "colored hotel" in. This would have been some time toward the middle of August.
One Sunday several eventful weeks later, a second, more modest memorial service was held in Longdale at the site of the church whose charred ruins the young men had come to Neshoba County to inspect. It was a hot afternoon, the gathering consisting mainly of "local peoples" and ourselves. Mrs. Chaney must have been there and eloquent little Ben. I remember, too, seeing my first mule-drawn cart. But now, as I write, what comes back to me is the memory of Bob Moses standing in front of what remained of Mt. Zion telling us in his quiet way that, at that very moment, U.S. planes were dropping bombs on Viet Nam.
Then few of us could have connected our business that afternoon with those bombs and bombers, could have imagined how the struggle for civil rights would soon collide with the war half-way round the world in a country few of us had ever heard of. Yet, solemn as that occasion was, I think we all realized that, if still other lives would have to be sacrificed, segregation was crumbling; faster or slower, American apartheid was bound for history's ash heap. Other, more difficult struggles lay and still lie ahead: for example, what does the freedom to sit at a downtown lunch counter amount to if you can't afford to eat there? But the young man I was then was hopeful.
Now, 40 years later and in an uglier, less hopeful time, may our call that justice finally be done for those three young men, contribute to reviving the better impulses of our nation's traditions.
Since my health doesn't permit me to be with you, let me add this personal note of gratitude: Participating in the Southern movement was an immense privilege and being taken in, taken care of, and educated by Neshoba County's Black folk, a blessing equaled only by my marriage.
Finally, there is another freedom fighter, one who died elsewhere, who I think deserves to be memorialized today: Ralph Featherstone, courageous, cool headed, sardonic, co-directed the Neshoba County project in its initial months. He, too, was among the best.
Copyright © 2004, Alan Schiffmann