When I heard about the arrest of Edgar Ray Killen in early January 2005 for the 1964 killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi, my first reaction was deep sadness. News of the arrest tapped into the intense grief I felt 41 years ago as a teenager in Jackson, Mississippi.
I first got caught up in the civil rights cause when I was a 12- and 13-year-old, the age when idealistic adolescents begin to see the world with great clarity about right and wrong. Sit-ins, freedom rides, the 1963 march on Washington-those were the sources of my moral formation.
I remember my frustrated incomprehension that the adult world didn't respond to the civil rights movement. To me this was a clear issue of right and wrong. At bedtime, I would bargain with God: "If you will make this better, if you will change people's hearts, I will believe in you." The civil rights years were a time of real spiritual crisis for me.
By the summer of '64, I had a driver's license and could elude my parents' supervision. I was determined to be part of the "Freedom Summer." My friends and I were somewhat naïve, believing integration was such an obvious good it must come soon.
I was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.'s moral leadership throughout my youth: There had been the march on Selma, the freedom rides. And I admired the sacrifices and courage of other pacifist African-American ministers, who were willing to be arrested for the cause. They were able to persevere because their faith told them that taking action was a moral imperative. Those ministers articulated so eloquently the idea that each of us should strive toward a heaven on earth. If you believe in salvation, you want to attain it, and you want to attain it now.
To me, Dr. King and his peers were moral exemplars. They shaped my understanding of integration as a value. I thought that African Americans owned moral integrity and truth. While I wanted integration to afford blacks the economic and educational opportunities whites already enjoyed, I also believed very strongly that the inner changes that had to take place before our society could embrace equal civil rights needed to happen in the hearts and minds of white people.
The papers published the address of COFO (the Council of Federated Organizations)--the group in Jackson that was coordinating civil rights activities, perhaps in the hope that someone would go and firebomb the place. Once we knew where the COFO office was, my friend Gary and I decided we had to go and volunteer.
At first the COFO volunteers didn't want to have anything to do with 15-year-old high school students. They didn't trust us; I think the first time we went there we didn't even get past the porch. We kept showing up, and finally by the end of that summer we got some small volunteer jobs.
It was the first time we had met African-American young people who, like James Chaney, were educated, committed to the cause, and willing to take chances. We admired them tremendously.
We relied on television news, since the local newspapers censored the wire-service stories. And just as Vietnam was later called a living-room war, throughout my entire adolescence, we in Mississippi learned about the civil rights movement around the country from television.
We were very aware of the work of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and we knew that the summer of 1964 was going to be a big push for voter registration and freedom schools, where African-Americans were helped to prepare to pass the voter-registration test. Volunteers, like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both white men from New York, came to Mississippi to help in the effort.
When we learned that young people from the North were traveling to Mississippi to join in the struggle, we felt a tremendous sense of excitement: Equality was right around the corner, we believed. The people who were coming down to work in the movement had a clear moral objective: to register voters and stand up for justice. They were exactly the kind of person I wanted to be.
Violence--or the threat of it--also touched our family. My father had gone to Washington to support equal job opportunities for blacks, and he was shown on the local evening news shaking hands with some African-American leaders who had also testified before Congress.
Within seconds, our telephone rang: an unknown voice delivering a death threat. My mother immediately called the sheriff, who said, "Oh, we might be by later." There was a terrifying sense that our house might be firebombed that night and nobody would help. Mother wouldn't even call the neighbors.
I'll never forget learning about the disappearance of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner on June 21. I was in a car with friends when we heard it on the radio. We stopped the car and listened with anguish. We had believed that because the whole world was watching Mississippi that summer, no harm could come to civil rights workers. Yet we knew right away that they had been killed.
It took 44 days for the bodies to be found. Debate about the case swirled throughout that summer. My parents believed that Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner had been playing with fire, although all they were doing before they were killed was visiting an African-American church that had been firebombed. As for the murderers, the attitude of my parents' social circle was withering disdain: The killers were rednecks, not of our class.
When 18 people were finally indicted and tried in 1967, it was on charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights. No one was charged with the murders.
The all-white jury deadlocked in the case against Killen, and he went free. One juror refused to convict Killen, a Ku Klux Klan leader, because he was a Baptist preacher. Like this juror, many fundamentalist Mississippians claimed the Bible justified keeping the races separate.
The atmosphere of violence and hate in the summer of '64 didn't stop my friends and me from taking a stand for civil rights. We did things that were truly dangerous. By the end of the summer, the three of us who had begun to go to COFO were allowed to participate in a freedom school at a church near rural Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Coming back from Vicksburg, we realized that we were being followed. Cars had been circling the church while we were there, writing down our license plates. We were simultaneously very frightened and exhilarated. The killings of Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner had made us feel that the struggle was worth dying for.
The murders, and the racism that came to the fore afterward, left me feeling deeply embittered toward the society around me that valued religious participation and claimed the moral high ground, yet accepted the racist status quo. That summer was a pivotal moment: I knew I was going to leave Mississippi.
I'm skeptical that the arrest of Killen 41 years after the fact will bring healing. James Chaney's grave has been desecrated and his mother had to move out of Mississippi because it wasn't safe for her to live there.
Nevertheless, there are certainly hopeful signs of change. Political assassination is no longer acceptable in Mississippi.
But sadly, the impact of recent prosecutions in civil rights era murder cases has not been notable. For example, in 1994, when Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, I didn't see a significant catharsis in Mississippi as a result.
I feel the same despair reading about these killings today as I did in 1964. Yet I hope that I can also hold onto the idealism of my adolescence, when I learned to confront the existence of injustice in the world.
The songs we sang in the movement were emblematic of our faith in transformation. "Oh Freedom," for example, declared, "Before I'd be a slave, I'd be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free." "We Shall Not be Moved" urged us to brave the danger around us. "We Shall Overcome" stirred us and supported our resolve. Nonetheless, the moral promises of the civil rights movement remain unfulfilled.