Yesterday I finished a new Sleeper Ave. story, mostly about school integration after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that was the beginning of the end of legal apartheid in America. I haven’t scheduled it yet; I’ll post it sometime in the next few weeks.
In researching the story, I realized I had forgotten much about that era, especially the vehemence with which integration was opposed in the South. I remembered dimly that there were many incidence of violence, but I hadn’t remembered how murderous the climate really was until I was reminded of the murder of three young men who were trying to register black voters in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Shwerner were killed in Neshoba County, Mississippi, near Philadelphia, on the night of June 21. They were arrested earlier in the day on trumped-up charges, jailed and then released to members of the Ku Klux Klan. That night they were beaten, shot to death and buried beneath an earthen dam. Their bodies were found 44 days later. Both the Neshoba Country Sheriff’s office and the Philadelphia Police Department were implicated in the conspiracy to kidnap and kill them.
State prosecutors refused to try the case, which proceeded only after the FBI took over. Seven of the 18 men charged were eventually convicted of conspiracy, but no murder charges were brought, and none of those convicted served more than six years. The presiding judge, justifying the light sentences, said, “They killed one nigger, one Jew and a white man. I gave them what I thought they deserved.” So much for Mississippi justice.
Revisiting the stories of the civil rights movement reminded me how difficult it was to achieve the racial progress we’ve made in this country, and how fragile those advances still are. Chaney, Goodman and Shwerner gave their lives for the cause of voting rights for black men and women, rights that Republican governors and legislatures are cynically rolling back in states they control. In the 1960’s it was entrenched Southern Democrats who bitterly opposed every attempt to end segregation, every plan to achieve even a modicum of racial equality. The parties may have changed, but the discrimination persists. Black lives still matter unequally.
One of the reasons I’m telling these stories in Sleeper Ave. is to help my kids understand that the world they inherited was made by men and women who were willing to risk their own lives and safety to make it a better place–and that the hard-won progress they achieved and that my children now enjoy is forever at risk.
I hope they’re listening.