Emily Dannenberg stepped off an air-conditioned tour bus into oppressive Mississippi heat. The white Columbia University graduate student had come to this steamy rural town on Monday with a mission: to mentor both black and white teenagers and help them make sense of their state’s violent and racist past.
“I’d always been biased against this state, without ever visiting it,” said Dannenberg, standing near a memorial to civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney and Michael Schwerner, who were arrested, kidnapped and murdered during the massive volunteer effort known as Freedom Summer 50 years ago.
The three activists were setting up schools and registering blacks to vote in the Jim Crow South when they encountered fierce resistance from the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement. In 1964, resentment of Northerners invading their home turf on a mission to expose brutality and discrimination reached a deadly crescendo. Activistsfrom all over are visiting Mississippi to commemorate the events and “teach greater moral bandwidth for a new generation,” according to organizers of Freedom50 events.
In the tiny town of Philadelphia, Dannenberg and a busload of high school students from the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation summer youth institute confronted the Magnolia State’s tormented legacy, including the so-called “Mississippi Burning” murders, 50 years later.
Many students on Dannenberg’s tour said they grew up in the shadow of horrific historic events, but they knew little about Freedom Summer and the sheer racist terror that characterized the era.
“It’s hard for all of us to imagine just how bad it was,” said Susan Glisson, executive director of the Winter Institute, who stood in the front of the tour bus and described cross and church burnings, racial intimidation and the murders in meticulous detail.
“There were separate bathrooms for blacks and whites,” Glisson said. “There were separate black and white Bibles and black and white drinking fountains. Every part of Southern life was segregated. . . . Fifty years later, folks are still dealing with the pain and trauma of that time.”
It was so hostile that even the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called Philadelphia “a terrible town.” His words: “This is the worst I’ve ever seen. There is a complete reign of terror here.”
Many of the events Glisson described were new to the students, who acknowledged that their civil rights education often extended no further than Dr. King and the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her bus seat to a white passenger.
Miracle Clark, a 16-year-old black high school student from the Mississippi town of Cleveland, said she was unaware that so many Freedom Summer volunteers were white.
“I never really knew that white people could be on black people’s side,” Clark said. “When I go back to my town, I want to tell everyone about it.”
Before the bus tour, the 27 students and their 14 mentors watched “Neshoba,” a documentary about the murders of the three civil rights workers, chilled by footage of the trio’s burned-out blue Ford Fairlane being dragged from the Bogue Chitto swamp near Philadelphia on June 23, 1964.
A horrified nation knew that instant that the men were likely dead. Scores of students, who were about the age Dannenberg is now, were told that if they cared about democracy, they had to come south – even though in Mississippi, at that moment, they faced imminent danger.
It took another 44 days after the grim discovery of the station wagon for the badly beaten bodies of Goodman, 20, Chaney, 21, and Schwerner, 24, to be found – down a dirt road and buried beneath a newly constructed earthen dam on a privately owned farm.
Seven years later, the federal government took the case over from reticent state prosecutors, convicting just seven out of 18 indicted Klan members of conspiring to violate the men’s civil rights.
Forty years after the murders, a massive, multiracial call for justice from Philadelphia Coalition within this insular community of lumber mills and pecan trees gained traction, with additional pressure from politicians, journalists and family members of the three men. Those efforts led to revelations that allowed prosecutors to bring new charges against an 80-year-old Klansman, Edgar Ray Killen, a preacher and sawmill operator whose 1967 trial ended in a deadlocked jury.
On June 21, 2005, a jury of nine whites and three blacks convicted Killen of manslaughter. He was sentenced to serve three consecutive 20-year terms in prison.
Myeisha Jones, 18, grew up in Philadelphia not far from the Mt. Zion Church, which was burned down by the Klan in their effort to find Schwerner. She didn’t know about the case before attending a summer seminar at the Winter Institute, where she is now a junior mentor. She says her own family shuts out the conversation.
“My father brushed me off and said we don’t need to talk about it,” Jones recalled. “Whenever I talk about it, my grandmother says, `Get out of the room,' and shuts the door.”
Jones doesn’t defend her town, but she does want the next generation to know that it has grown. “I feel like it’s the responsibility of every one of us to tell the story,” she said. “We are not done telling the Mississippi story.”
Dick Molpus, a former Mississippi secretary of state who famously apologized to the families of the slain workers 25 years ago, is also not done.
Molpus toured Freedom Summer sites on Monday with David Goodman, watching as the younger brother of the slain civil rights worker gathered stones to place at Rock Cut Road on his first visit to the murder site. He was also among the activists, family members and politicians honored in a 50th anniversary prayer ceremony at the rebuilt Mt. Zion Church on June 15.
A day later, Molpus addressed the Winter Institute students. He touted the town’s progress: desegregated schools, apologies, memorials, a black mayor.
“People have a vision of Philadelphia as a hell hole of the world,” Molpus said, in another talk a day later in the state capital of Jackson. Yet each time someone speaks out against racism, he said, his hometown changes for the better.
“We live in a time where voices need to be heard with clarity and strength,” Molpus said. “In the ‘60s, the dark side had arisen. We could see that dark side come back, so it behooves all of us to speak out.”
After his talk, Molpus posed for a photo with an unexpected elderly listener: Byron De La Beckwith Jr., whose father’s conviction in 1994 for the 1963 killing of Medgar Evers symbolized a transformed Mississippi. In another sign of change, De La Beckwith Jr. said he has attended several Freedom Summer talks this month.
For her part, Winter mentor Emily Dannenberg will leave a state that once scared her too much to visit with new hope for the next generation of activists – and newfound respect for Freedom Summer volunteers 50 years ago.
“Would I have come to Mississippi?” wonders Danneberg, who is studying race relations and human rights. “Would I have had the courage to stay? Absolutely.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.