(Published by FORsooth, newspaper of Louisville KY chapter of Fellowship of Reconciliation [FOR])
Philadelphia, Mississippi & Louisville, Kentucky
I attended two events in June that I never thought I would be able to witness in my lifetime. One was in Philadelphia, Mississippi and the other right here, in Louisville, Kentucky.
My West Virginia friend, Steve, a graduate of Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, and I drove to Philadelphia, Mississippi to help mark the 40th anniversary of the murders of James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andy Goodman.
Until the mid-1960 s Mississippi was an apartheid state, made in the USA, and this is no exaggeration. There were legally mandated separate entrances in restaurants for whites and blacks, separate sections in movie theaters, separate and unequal schools.
Two generations have come of age, since then, knowing little of the history of the Civil Rights Movement, a struggle that waged a non- violent war against enforced racial segregation. This history is not fully taught, and so a little more background may be in order.
Many Black Mississippi churches, particularly those where civil rights advocates were permitted to meet, had been set ablaze by racists over the years. On June 20,1964 three civil rights workers went to rural Neshoba County, Mississippi (Philadelphia is located in this county) to investigate an arson fire that burned to the ground Mt. Zion Church, an African American congregation.
James Chaney, African American, was a Mississippian. Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, both white, hailed from New York City. These three civil rights workers would never again be seen alive.
They had been arrested by local law enforcement and put in jail. The Ku Klux Klan, a U.S. terrorist organization (then and now), murdered them and buried their bodies beneath an earthen dam. Their disappearance shocked the nation, and by the time the bodies were discovered the whole world was watching.
Mount Zion Church was rebuilt. Every year the church has held a service to solemnize the sacred memory of our three martyrs, the memory of many more who were victims of racist murderers, and to pay tribute to the hallowed ground of this church.
This year, for the first time, Philadelphia s white power structure joined in coalition with prominent African American and Choctaw (Native American) Neshoba Countians, and some members of Mount Zion Untied Methodist Church. The result was The Philadelphia Coalition. (Please read, in separate box, their Statement Asking for Justice in the June 21, 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Shwerner ).
This remarkable statement could never have been made public in the 1960 s: its signatories would surely have been murdered. The event itself was in two parts, the first at the Neshoba County Coliseum, followed by the service at Mt. Zion Church.
Upon entering the Coliseum we were met by police leashed to police dogs. But, instead of the dogs and cops looking to attack unarmed demonstrators a la the 1960 s, this time they were there to protect us! The program at Mt. Zion was a tribute to this sacred ground.
The words of civil rights veterans Dorie Ladner, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Dave Dennis were beautiful. Carolyn Goodman, eighty eight years old and mother of Andy, said: I never thought the day would come when I would say I was happy to be in Neshoba County, but today I am.
Former Mississippi governor William Winter, a moderate who has taken a principled stand against racism, spoke with conviction. Former Mississippi Secretary of State, Dick Molpus, made an impassioned speech: Until justice is done, we are all at least complicit.
Even the sitting governor, Haley Barbour, right-winger complicit with the racist Republican southern strategy, felt it politically important to be on stage. His remarks were appropriate.
But the day belonged to the African American community of Neshoba County, Mississippi, and to the black and white civil rights veterans in attendance. Civil rights workers active in other states in the 1960 s were there as well.
The 1,800 people at the coliseum and 300 who packed the church contained an honor-roll of activists of that era. There was Ellie Dahmer, widow of slain civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer; Raylawni Branch, one of the first two African Americans to integrate the University of Southern Mississippi.
The Movement, as we called it back then, was mostly local people who have seldom been recognized. I was privileged to sit next to one of them, Donna Weary, who as a young girl was active in Columbia, Mississippi. Her two daughters accompanied her.
There were, to be honest, very serious problems in building for this day, and I will deal with these in my September column. But the day itself was a truly unforgettable experience.
The event here in Louisville was equally startling, and fulfilling. In 1954 Shively was an all-white Louisville suburb. An African American Louisville couple, Andrew and Charlotte Wade, were looking for a house for themselves and their daughter. They found such a house in Shively, but no real estate agent would stand up for justice and break the color bar.
So the Wades turned to Carl and Anne Braden, a white couple long active in the fight for racial equality, a press release recounts. The Bradens agreed to purchase the house, and then sell it to the Wades.
The Wades moved into their new home on May 15, 1954 (only two days before the historic US Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, declaring segregated schools unconstitutional). Mr. and Mrs. Wade were met with a burning cross, and their living room windows were shattered by gunfire.
After six weeks of steady harassment and threats, their house was dynamited. But a Jefferson County grand jury, investigating the violence, turned its attention from the Wades civil rights to the alleged communism of the Bradens, who were later indicted for sedition, i.e. using integration as a ruse to overthrow the government by force and violence! And you thought the present-day idiocy of the USA Patriot Act was a new phenomenon.
A sensationalized, McCarthy-style trial resulted, in which Carl Braden was convicted of sedition and sentenced to prison. Yet the Wades were never able to move back into what had been their dream home, nor were they able to see the culprits prosecuted. Amid the Cold War hysteria of the times, their civil rights were instead ignored. The name of their street (Rone Court) was changed to Clyde Drive, and housing segregation resumed, only to be challenged again by a more mass open housing movement later in the 1960s.
The Wades pioneering actions were acknowledged at the June 25 marker dedication ceremony. The marker was unveiled at the head of Clyde Drive, a neighborhood that is today multiracial. The marker was co- sponsored by many organizations, elected officials and individuals, including a group of residents. The marker, a project of the Kentucky Historical Society Highway Historical Marker program, honors the courage of the Wades in taking early action for open housing and acknowledges the controversy that surrounded housing desegregation.
Yet there is no marker honoring the courage and steadfastness of Anne and Carl Braden. Please let me inject a personal note. I lived with Carl and Anne when I first moved to Louisville, in 1969. I occupied their daughter s downstairs bedroom, which fifteen years earlier the Bradens had evacuated, fearing that the dynamiting of the Wades house would be repeated in theirs.
I remember sitting on the bed in their daughter s room reading Anne s magnificent book recounting that period, The Wall Between. Actually, I had read the book years earlier, but sitting in their house and re- reading it was an adrenalin-rush.
The Philadelphia, Mississippi and Louisville, Kentucky observances, this past June, were reminders of the terror and destruction of racism. They were also affirmations of the human spirit and the enduring power of sisterhood and brotherhood in the people s fightback, to bring about positive social change in a world at peace.
These episodes are reminders that there have been movements for civil rights ever since there have been commissions of civil wrongs. This was the case with the Spartan (Greek) foot soldiers at Thermopylae, who fought the Persian conquerors in 480 B.C., and with the thousands of other struggles for freedom that followed.
We must honor our forebears-in-struggle even as we battle against the oppression of the present day. That continuum called history is a stone cold reality. There is indeed warmth in this world, but it is best contained within those among us who struggle in community for a better day.
As one magnificent civil rights song intones:
Copyright © 2004, Ira Grupper
Copyright © 2004
Last Modified: August 3, 2004.