Problems With the 40th Neshoba Memorial
 — Ira Grupper

From LABOR PAEANS September 2004

(Published by FORsooth, newspaper of Louisville KY chapter of Fellowship of Reconciliation [FOR]) In the July-August column we detailed a moving and historic event: the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andy Goodman in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964. It was held in Philadelphia and rural Neshoba County, Mississippi. We also stated that there were serious problems associated with this event.

I have spoken with a number of people about this. I relied on their information, but have come to my own conclusions.

On one end of the dispute sits James Prince III, editor of the Neshoba Democrat, who was one of the prime movers of the Philadelphia Coalition. He 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."

Almost, but not quite, at the other end of the pendulum are some very dedicated long-time civil rights activists who feel that the white power structure tried to coopt the event, adding compliant and/or beholden African Americans and Native Americans to its coalition, and attempting to isolate others more "militant" than themselves.

At the farthermost end is Ben Chaney. 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."

So who is right and who is wrong? From 1964 until 1999, when then- Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore opened a murder investigation, nobody in Neshoba County officialdom, acting under color of law, had condemned the murders of three unarmed innocent young men who were witnessing and organizing for an end to the brutal system that was racial segregation.

Nor were there, all those years, public voices from the local white power structure condemning the complicity of local law enforcement in the murders. Nor was there condemnation of agencies of the state of Mississippi for hindering investigations and engaging in cover-up, sabotage and misinformation. To its credit, the local newspaper did in fact call for an accounting, but the point about governmental silence still stands.

None of the above diminishes by even one iota the important steps the Philadelphia Coalition has taken to 'fess up, repent and move on. Having said this, it must also be noted that them-whats-got keep their plunder by devising new and ever more subtle, though not always subtle, tactics of control.

For example: discrimination and anti-discrimination enforcement, have changed over the years, throughout the U.S. No longer is discrimination always blatant — unless you are an African American secret service agent, in the year 2000, trying to get served at Denny's restaurant. No longer are women, minorities, senior citizens, the disabled, and lesbians and gays simply excluded. Now we have a system of what I have termed "well-spoken tokens". Well-spoken tokens are the compliant obsequious window dressing that offending companies and agencies parade about to show compliance, to point to as evidence that protected classes are happy on the plantation.

The plot thickens. In "Neshoba acknowledges '64 murders," the Neshoba Democrat opines: "The (Philadelphia) Coalition had attempted to work with Chaney and his spokesmen, a convicted felon from California with Neshoba County ties and a white man from Arkansas, members said."

I happen to know the two men above-referenced, and they are not spokespersons for Mr. Chaney, although they have worked with him in the past. The former is an African American from Philadelphia, whose family was key to the civil rights movement in the area. All three of the civil rights workers came to visit this family on June 21, 1964. The family was among the last persons to see them alive before they were captured by local cops. This brother is widely believed to have worked longer and harder for justice for the murder victims than anyone else in Neshoba County.

The latter has a long history of support for civil rights. Incidentally, if jail records are a discrediting factor, then the writer of this column needs to be silenced as he believes his civil rights rap sheet is a distinguishing highlight of his curriculum vitae.

The fact that the Philadelphia paper tried to smear two righteous activists does not necessarily negate its opinions, but rather its integrity.

One last point before I end. A long-time activist told me that it is time for some of the veteran activists to let go, to recognize the times we live in now are different from the 1960's, that things are not just black and white, if you'll pardon the reference. There is much truth to this, but it does not relate directly to the subjects of personal integrity, and building a coalition of equals.

Copyright © 2004, Ira Grupper

(Labor donated)