Why We Still Demand A Full Measure of Justice- A Short History

June, 1964.  Three and a half years had passed since workers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had come to McComb, Mississippi and began talking to folk about “voter registration.” It had been three and a half years since Mr. Herbert Lee of Amite County, MS, one of the first people that SNCC workers took to the court house to attempt to register to vote, was shot down by a presiding Mississippi State Representative who was found innocent in “self-defense.”  It had been two years since the one black man who witnessed the murder seeking to testify was gunned down by shotgun blast. Our work was buried unless someone white got hurt. This was the state of the movement when SNCC, through the apparatus of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), made the call for “Freedom Summer.”

On June 21, 1964, while SNCC was training hundreds of mostly white and northern student volunteers to help register black folk to vote as part of “Freedom Summer,” three civil rights workers-- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—who were working on a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) project, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Two were white and Jewish, both from New York and one was black from Meridian, Mississippi.

The stories from the frontlines of the movement had become the daily news on most news outlets.  The news media reported that the three civil rights workers from Philadelphia, Mississippi were missing, but most of us veterans knew that they were murdered and their bodies had been buried or thrown into a body of water somewhere. Many of us old SNCC organizers joined the search for our “fallen” comrades. Day after day, we searched the woods, the lakes, the rivers and anywhere we saw new piles of dirt. Some of us talked to people along the route. One of the last family they visited before they went missing was the family of Cornelius and Mable Steele in the Longdale community 10 miles East of Philadelphia. They were investigating the burning of the Mt. Zion Church in the same community. We found their charred Station Wagon two days after they went missing 10 miles East of Philadelphia, Mississippi in the Bogue Chitto Swamp. After over a month, a white informer finally revealed where the bodies were.  We found their decomposed bodies exactly where they told us they would be, 15 feet beneath a large pond dam, on the property of Olen L. Burrage.  

The Steele family led by Cornelius, the father of the family, began immediately holding memorials every year at the Mt. Zion Church demanding the prosecution of the murderers.  From 1964 to 2005, ample evidence was available for Mississippi to prosecute the murders, but Mississippi refused to prosecute.  The United States Department of Justice was forced by the demands of the movement to do something about this great injustice.  In 1967, eighteen defendants were tried on federal charges for criminally violating the civil rights of the three civil rights workers.  Seven were convicted and were sentenced from three to ten years.  None would serve more than six years. 

The Steele Family continued to organize the Mississippi Civil Rights Martyrs Annual Memorial Conference and Caravan, demanding justice not only for the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, but for all who were murdered in the cause of freedom in Mississippi. During the search for the three, the bodies of eight others, all of whom were black males, were found at the bottoms of riverbeds.  Unfortunately, these murders sparked little to no press coverage or public outcry because unlike the case of the three civil rights workers, none of these victims were white.  These were just black folk being killed.  

In 2004, the University of Mississippi, under the leadership of former governor William Winters, hired Susan Glisson to organize a coalition of locals in Neshoba County to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murder of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. The project, started by Governor Winter, was well funded.  The planning committee, which came to be called the Philadelphia Coalition, included former and current friends and acquaintances, as well as relatives, of murder suspects.  In 2005, the Coalition, along with the long-term, ongoing and significant efforts of martyrs’ families, movement veterans, and other activists (especially the Steele Family, now led by Cornelius and Mable’s son, John Steele) were able to get the oldest of the nine who committed the murders (87-year-old Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen), convicted on state murder charges.  It appeared that Neshoba County and the State of Mississippi, in effect, wanted the case to be considered closed.  The Steele family, who insisted that this was not good enough, believed that this was just a token gesture to try and stop the demand for a full measure of justice for the murder of the three civil rights workers in Neshoba and the murders of over 50 other Mississippi civil rights martyrs who were killed by white Mississippi bigots. The coalition and Mississippi establishment members and reactionaries seem to want “peace” and reconciliation without justice. The 40th celebration was a hijacking of the commemoration that was already well-organized by the Steele family, Ben Chaney (brother of the civil rights martyr James Chaney) and other activists.  The coalition chose to have Republican Governor Haley Barber be the keynote speaker with no one from the freedom movement on stage to speak about our struggle for justice.

Since that event, the Steele Family and others have continued to struggle to get more murders prosecuted. So far only four have been prosecuted out of over fifty. Even some persons from the civil rights movement have been calling for us to abandon our demands and let “bygones be bygones.” 

We believe that there is an effort to sanitize Philadelphia and rewrite its history for the purpose of increasing business since it has the third largest “Indian Reservation Casino” resort area in the state. The University Of Mississippi seems to be complicit in reaching that goal.

The Steele Family and the Memorial Service Committee have committed to maintaining John Steele as our full-time organizer on the ground to make sure that our demands for justice for all who died for freedom are recognized and their killers are brought to justice, now and forever.  We are asking you to join us.

This year marks our 49th year of demanding justice.  We are organizing an historic event for the 50th anniversary of the murders of the three civil rights workers and at least 40 others whose lives were cut short by bigots’ bullets.

1. We need volunteers to help us go door to door to seek our people’s support and to learn from them what kind of program they would like to see demanding justice.

2. We need folk who know how to raise funds.

3. We need you to come to our 49th memorial and help us plan the 50th.

4. Lastly: WE NEED MONEY TO CONTINUE AND BUILD THIS MOVEMENT AND RE-BUILD THE OLD LONGDALE COMMUNITY CENTER THAT THE KKK BURNED DOWN IN 1982.

 

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