The Moral Universe – Carrying MLK’s Cross

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Perhaps it is appropriate that the commemoration of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. comes on Holy Saturday this year.

We know that Dr. King was a real human being, with faults that have been sometimes too eagerly made public. But that he was a martyr in the cause of civil rights, no one can deny.

There was a time when I couldn’t stand to listen to old fogies say, “I remember where I was when. . .” Now I’m that old fogy. On April 4, 1968, I was 15 years old. We had an early dinner, and my parents took me to the neighboring town for the second night of a talent show that I was in. Ordinarily, we would have been at home with the television news on, but this night we had to forego that ritual.

My “talent” was playing the piano, which I didn’t do extraordinarily well. While I had taken piano lessons, I had never studied long pieces, a whole sonata, for example. So I had made up a medley of “Für Elise” by Beethoven and “Lara’s Song” from “Dr. Zhivago.” Despite my lack of exceptional talent, another mother tried to have me disqualified because her daughter was playing “Für  Elise” (correctly, as it turned out).

My parents went out to the car after my turn came, but I hung out for a while. A thunderstorm had begun, and when I finally ran out to the car and jumped in, soaking wet, I at first thought the tears running down my mother’s face were a reflection of the rain on the windowsill. Then my father told me, in a solemn voice, “Martin Luther King’s been assassinated.”

By 1968, it had been about five years since television stations had started to take the civil rights movement seriously and broadcasting both the horrific (Freedom Riders buses being burned) and the triumphant (March on Washington) aspects of the movement. I had seen African-Americans being cannoned with water on the nightly news or being menaced by barely restrained dogs.

In my youthful liberality, I just couldn’t understand why black people were hated so much. I had yet to learn about the complexities of white supremacy and institutionalized racism, in both of which I myself have been complicit. It seemed very clear-cut to me when I was 15. I would sometimes pretend, while sitting in a hot bath, that I was speaking to the United Nations on behalf of all African-Americans and make the case that we were all equal and, foreshadowing Rodney King, why couldn’t we all get along?

In later years, I would feel embarrassment upon remembering this, until I learned that Stokely Carmichael and other founders of the Black Power movement, also went to the UN, believing that the racism in the US made of African-Americans another country that needed the UN’s protection.

mlkOn the program for this year’s inter-church Good Friday program is this quote from Dr. King: “Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil; a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

Oh Dr. King! Oh Medger Evers! Oh James Chaney! Oh Malcolm X! Oh Jimmy Lee Jackson! Oh Viola Liuzzi! Oh all the martyrs of the movement, would that 47 years ago this country had had the will to keep alive the ideals that you embodied; had had the will to protect the legislation that came out of each painful moment of your work; had truly believed that racism could be overcome; had understood that that creative force working to pull down the evil cannot do it without our participation because where there is free will, there will always be evil. If we do not align our wills to God, we cannot possibly reach the bright tomorrow.

My heart broke recently (it’s been breaking a lot lately) as I listened to an audio version of Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography. His last chapter detailed the strides that had been made and his optimism for the future. I had come to feel as if I knew him intimately after listening to this very personal memoir, and I wanted to weep thinking of what he would make of our world today.

Barbara Harris, the first African-American woman Episcopal bishop, used to exhort us to be Easter people in a Good Friday world. Despair over the death of Dr. King and his dream is not an option. We must resurrect his dream on a daily basis. We must meet Jesus at the tomb every day and say, “Yes, Lord, we believe and we will spread your word and work unceasingly to bring your kingdom here on earth.” Let us not betray the martyrs, but fulfill the work that they started.

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The Moral Universe – Mississippi Burning, Part 3

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When Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price let Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman out of jail at 10:30 pm on Father’s Day, 1964, the Meridian CORE office had been trying to find out where they were for several hours. That was protocol; if a field worker didn’t check in on a regular basis, start the phone tree going. So the first thing Mickey Schwerner should have done after being released was to have found a phone and called the office to report what had happened.

Price had not let the trio use a phone while they were in jail. Perhaps there wasn’t a pay phone nearby. Perhaps the three just wanted to get out of Philadelphia as quickly as possible. They hadn’t reached the city limits before Price caught up with them again along with several other Klansmen. According to Klansman James Jordan’s confession, they were put in Price’s car and driven to an isolated road. Schwerner and Goodman were killed with one bullet each. James Chaney was tortured before being shot. The bodies were dumped in an earth dam already picked out by the organizers.

Bob Moses was correct in believing that something happening to young white people in Mississippi would bring action from the federal government. On June 22, the FBI swarmed to the area, ordered there by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The car Schwerner had been driving was found by Choctaw Indians on a swampy river on their property. It took another 44 days before the FBI’s efforts to turn Klansmen against each other took them to the burial site.

“Mississippi Burning,” or “MIBURN,” was the name of the FBI’s file on the case. It is also, of course, the name of the movie made in the 1990s about the aftermath of the murders and the hunt for the bodies. At the time the movie came out, I was doing film reviews for the newspaper I worked for. I don’t have the clipping, but I’m sure I gave it a very good review. I watched it again recently to see whether my younger self had been too kind to the movie. It hadn’t.

Despite cinematic flourishes and changing the protagonists’ names, the movie still opens a window onto a tragic, shameful piece of US history that many might not know about otherwise. It opens with a scene of the car carrying Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman on a lonely country road, driving up one hill and down another, like some kind of a roller coaster. And suddenly at the rise of a hill behind them, there is a truck that then disappears into the dip. Then there’s another truck on the hill behind the first, and so on. And you know these young men are doomed.

Instead of focusing on the actual FBI agent who led the investigation, the movie casts two characters that are really metaphors. A Kennedy-esque looking Willem Dafoe is the straight arrow who does everything by the book and brings his Northern sensibilities to Mississippi with him. Gene Hackman is a former cop turned agent who is a native of Mississippi and understands the games one has to play to get at the truth.

A love story is thrown in that could probably have been left out, but it does serve to show that not everyone in Philadelphia was a racist and that there were people born there who would abhor what happened to the three civil rights workers.

One detail in the movie that was true was the hiring of mob enforcers by the FBI to intimidate members of the Klan or people close to the Klan to get information.

Howard Ball, in Murder in Mississippi, goes into quite a bit of legal detail about the effort to bring 18 Klansmen to trial for “conspiracy to violate the civil rights” of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. It took three years of legal wrangling, including a trip to the US Supreme Court, to get to trial. Seven of the 18 were found guilty, including Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers and Deputy Sheriff Ray Price. Preacher Ray Killen, who spent the eight hours of June 21, 1964, organizing the killing party, was not convicted because of a hung jury; a female juror said she could never convict a man of the cloth.

Most of the seven men were out of jail within six years, but Sam Bowers would return to a penitentiary for life for the 1965 murder of NAACP field worker Vernon Dahmer Jr. Wayne Roberts, who was fingered as the actual shooter, served the full ten years of his sentence.

Both Mr. Ball and the authors of We Are Not Afraid relate the anecdote that Roberts was unable to understand or appreciate the last words Mickey Schwerner ever said. Just before shooting him, Roberts said to him, “Are you that nigger-lover?” Schwerner replied, “Sir, I know just how you feel.”

As a well-trained CORE employee, Schwerner was trying to engage the enemy right up to the end.

The Moral Universe – Mississippi Burning, Part 2

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by Cynthia Pease

As turbulent as our times are now, the months leading up to Freedom Summer in 1964 were even more troubled; storm clouds brewed in many areas as the destiny of three young men unwound itself.
The country was still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy the previous November.

President Johnson was trying to push through his civil rights bill and using every bit of his famed manipulative powers to do so. He was fighting not only for the bill, but against Barry Goldwater’s Presidential campaign. Another Kennedy, young Teddy, had broken his back in an airplane crash that also involved Senator Birch Bayh.

J. Edgar Hoover and his empire were fanatically trying to get the dirt on Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow civil rights activists. King was having his own troubles with a campaign in St. Augustine, Florida. Malcolm X had very publicly left the Nation of Islam and was leveling all kinds of charges against its leader, Elijah Mohammed, putting a target very clearly on his own back. It wasn’t a matter of whether the Nation would eliminate him, but when. The FBI nicely helped by planting stories in newspapers that fueled the already flammable situation.

In the North, a white backlash against all the civil rights campaigns allowed Governor George Wallace of Alabama to get on the Presidential primary ballot in Wisconsin.

In Mississippi, where Freedom Summer volunteers would attempt to teach black voters what they needed to know to pass the registration challenges, five civil rights workers had been murdered in the winter and spring, according to Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters. There had also been whippings, shootings and Klan cross burnings across the state. The State Sovereignty Commission had infiltrated the Freedom School trainings and was reporting back regularly on what the plans were for the voter registration drive.

And a young New York social worker and his wife, Mickey and Rita Schwerner, joined the Congress of Racial Equality and moved to Meridian, Mississippi, to open a field office there.

Murder in Mississippi author Howard Bell gives this brief bio of Schwerner: A graduate of Cornell with a degree in rural sociology, he and Rita were becoming increasingly radicalized by events in the south. Upon landing in Meridian in January 1964, they were successful in setting up a community center and holding voter registration classes. Mickey especially became quickly known to the rising Klan and its Imperial Wizard, Sam Bowers. Bowers was the only person who could give the order to “eliminate” someone and this he did in April. Schwerner was known to the Klan as “Goatee,” and Bowers gave the #4 order to Edgar Ray Killen, a Klan Kleagle (recruiter and organizer).

Schwerner met and became good friends with James Chaney, an African-American who was born in Meridian and had been active in civil rights causes for years despite his young age. He began volunteering with CORE in 1963. Schwerner asked that he be made a full-time, paid staff member, which was approved.

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Mickey Schwerner, left; James Chaney, Andrew Goodman

On May 30, Chaney and Schwerner met with the deacons and elders of Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi, in Neshoba County to seek permission to use the church as a voter training center. On June 16, while Chaney and Schwerner were in Ohio at the Freedom Summer training camp, the church’s deacons met to discuss the request. Klansmen arrived, hoping to find Goatee there. He wasn’t, so to relieve their hostility, they beat several of the elderly deacons; later they returned to the church and firebombed it in hopes of luring Schwerner back, says Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters.

At the boot camp held at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, the first 200 of an eventual 900 volunteers were being taught the dangers and risks they would face in Mississippi. The vast majority of the volunteers were white college students, and this was intentional. White college students were considered the country’s crowning glory; surely the federal government would protect them and the country would gather behind their efforts.

Indeed, Bob Moses, the architect of Freedom Summer, had written to the Justice Department on more than one occasion asking for federal protection that summer. John Doar, a white attorney in the civil rights division of the Justice Department who had put himself on the line many times in the South, came to the camp to explain why federal protection was not possible. The volunteers were told that the government could not interfere with a state’s police system unless federal laws were broken.

bob mosesMoses is a fascinating person, an enigmatic man with a Zen-like attitude to life as described by Taylor Branch. Having grown up in Harlem, Moses became a schoolteacher but decided in 1960 that he needed to explore his black identity by going south. A brilliant young man, he had studied at Hamilton College and did graduate work in philosophy at Harvard. He was particularly drawn to the existential philosophy of Albert Camus. He had quietly worked to register voters in Mississippi, witnessing the deaths of black men he had lived and worked with. Some of the young students at the boot camp thought of him as the Jesus of the movement; perhaps his surname is even more appropriate, though he was never as well known as King or Bayard Rustin or the other more familiar names of the civil rights movement.

A 20-year-old student at the boot camp, Andrew Goodman, had joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and volunteered for Freedom Summer in April. He had been detailed to go to Canton, Mississippi, but when Schwerner asked for volunteers to come to Meridian, he changed his plans at the last minute. Along with a few other volunteers, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman left Ohio for Meridian on June 19. On June 21, the three went to Neshoba County to investigate the Mount Zion church bombing.

At around 2 pm that day, they were heading back to Meridian when they were stopped for speeding by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a Klan member. He took them back to Philadelphia and jailed them on the excuse that he had to find a magistrate to settle the speeding ticket. In fact, he used the eight hours he kept them to let Killen know that he had Goatee so Killen could organize Klansmen to come to Philadelphia.

The Moral Universe – Mississippi Burning Part 1

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By Cynthia Pease

Mississippi was said to be the hardest nut to crack in the movement to register black voters. If a voter registration drive could succeed there, it could succeed anywhere.

Of course, this also meant that the resistance there would be fiercer than resistance elsewhere. Indeed, the Freedom Summer project of 1964 led to the re-formation of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, which was responsible for numerous murders, fire bombings, beatings, and other forms of intimidation in a short period of time and making it difficult for blacks to register to vote. Literacy tests were required for blacks but not for whites, with often ridiculous questions that no one could have answered. The tests were obviously structured so that blacks would not be able to pass them. Poll taxes were also part of registering to vote, which kept poor blacks from even attempting to register.

White Citizens Councils had been the main “nonviolent” force for enforcing Jim Crow practices of segregation and denial of voting rights to blacks in Mississippi. But when word of the Freedom Summer Project to send thousands of white students (or “nigger-loving Jews and Commies” to the WCCs) to Mississippi to hold Freedom Schools and teach blacks what they needed to know to register to vote came to the ears of the white supremacists, they knew something stronger was needed.

The portrait of Sam Bowers drawn in Murder in Mississippi by Howard Ball is chilling. It may not be surprising that the name of his jukebox and vending machine business was Sambo Amusement Company. He thought of himself as a pure Christian, yet his hatred of Jews as well as blacks indicates that he never understood that Jesus was a Jew and most certainly not white as Bowers understood whiteness. Infidels were to be murdered, according to Ball, not forgiven or converted. “If it is necessary to eliminate someone, it is to be done with no malice, in complete silence, and in the manner of a Christian act,” he is quoted by Ball as saying.

Bowers’ intolerance was rewarded with being named Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Mississippi KKK in February 1964. Between February and June, membership in the KKK grew to between 5,000 and 6,000.

Whether calling themselves the White Citizens Council or the Ku Klux Klan, white Mississippians had never been averse to using violence. Emmett Till died in Mississippi in 1955; Medger Evers of the NAACP was assassinated in 1963; Vernon Dahmer, also an NAACP official, would be burned to death by the Klan in 1965. James Meredith survived being shot in 1966 several years after he was the first black student to be enrolled at “Ole Miss”; his enrollment necessitated heavy federal protection from mobs of angry whites.

Charges have been made that the only reason the FBI investigated these murders so tirelessly was because two of the victims were white. And that may well be, but the black activists who started the Freedom Summer project were very clear that they wanted white students to go south because they knew that would draw attention to the situation. Black people had been dying left and right trying to work for civil rights, but little attention had been paid by the rest of the country. They needed leverage, and white was the leverage.

The White Citizens Council knew all about, and indeed had infiltrated, the Freedom Summer training camp in Oxford, Ohio. With the revitalized Klan growing every day, by June 1964 the time was ripe for the murders that drew the most attention in that bloody season, those of three young voter registration workers, two white and one black. Ironically, the fates of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman played out in a Mississippi town called Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.