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Philadelphia Coalition investigating civil-rights workers slayings

 


Philadelphia Coalition investigating civil-rights workers slayings

 

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Memorial services for the slain civil-rights workers are held each year at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church.
June 23, 2004                                            


By John Gordon*

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. (UMNS)—For decades, members of a small Mississippi church thought there was little they could do to push for justice in the deaths of three civil-rights workers.

Now, a broad-based citizens’ coalition is calling on the U.S. Justice Department to reopen the investigation into the 1964 slayings of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.  Members of the Philadelphia Coalition believe enough evidence can still be turned up to bring murder charges in the case.

“I guess maybe we didn’t think we were strong enough to ask for justice then, so that’s not what we were pursuing,” said Elsie Kirksey, lay leader at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church.

“We were commemorating them for what they did.”

 

A sheriff’s deputy who said their car was speeding took them to the Neshoba County Jail.  They were released six hours later and told to leave town. They disappeared, and their bodies were found later buried in an earthen dam.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

David Vowell is a part of the coalition calling for a reopening of the investigation into the murders.
“ Seven people were convicted of violating their civil rights in a Ku Klux Klan conspiracy to intimidate black voters. No murder charges were filed in the case, known across the country as Mississippi Burning.

The time has come,” said United Methodist David Vowell, a member of the Philadelphia Coalition. “I think this has just been a dark cloud that’s been over our county and our community.”

Even after four decades, Vowell believes there is enough evidence for murder charges.

“We’ve been assured by the FBI and people in association with the FBI, that there is evidence here,” he said.  “And if that is the case, that’s what our people want to do.  We want to make every effort we can to see that it can be brought to justice and we move forward.”

The church recently held a special service marking the 40th anniversary of the slayings.  Hundreds also attended a program held at the town’s coliseum.

David Goodman, brother of Andrew Goodman, said it was time to “heal these wounds” and find out who is responsible for the murders.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Carolyn Goodman's son was one of the three slain civil-rights workers.
“We can’t be critical of terrorists in other countries when our own terrorists aren’t brought to justice,” he said.  “It has national implications for us. This is serious.”

Carolyn Goodman said her son, Andrew, came to Mississippi because he “believed in our Constitution” and felt laws allowing African-Americans to vote were being violated in the deep South. He was a college student when he was killed.

“This has never been prosecuted for what it was,” she said. “We have to abide by the law.  And this is the law.”

Several church members have relatives who were beaten and threatened on the night the church burned. Philadelphia Coalition member Jewel Rush McDonald said her mother and brother were chased down and assaulted by Klansmen while leaving a meeting at the church.

McDonald left Philadelphia soon after that and did not return for decades.

“I went away for 30 years. I guess I hid it for 30 years,” she said. “And now it’s very emotional for me, but we’re going to get through it.”

McDonald’s brother, the Rev. George Rush, praised the coalition’s efforts to reopen the case.

“My mother used to talk about it and she would always break down and cry,” he said.  “What did she tell us? About how they were beaten, what they said, what they called them, the names, how she was kicked. Not very pleasant.”

Kirksey, who is telecommunications supervisor for the Philadelphia Police Department, said she agrees whoever was responsible for the murders should be punished.

“I, myself, just don’t want anyone to forget what they’ve done for us,” she said. “They gave their lives so that we may have the opportunity to go vote.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

A memorial service held at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church marked the anniversary of the murders.
“People now, they take it for granted,” she said. “Most of the youth don’t realize that this just didn’t happen by chance.”

Kirksey said race relations in Philadelphia are much better now. And she praised the efforts of coalition members.

“This is not for show,” she said. “We’ve sat there and we’ve talked (to) the committee members. We’ve sat there and we’ve cried together.”

Kirksey said the efforts of the three who were killed have been felt far beyond the country church that became a symbol for the civil-rights movement.

“It totally changed the community,” she said. “It changed Mt. Zion. It changed the county. I guess you could say it changed the nation.”

*Gordon is a freelance producer residing in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

 

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