After spending the morning in the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery (a terrific visual display and a wealth of information), we loaded the bus for Philadelphia, Mississippi. On the way we watched a movie, “Murder in Mississippi,” telling the story of three slain civil rights workers in 1964: James Chaney, Micky Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, killed by Klan members. Chaney was an African American man from Meridian, MS and the other two were white college students from New York. These men were helping black people register to vote.
One of the key scenes in the movie takes place at Mt. Zion Methodist (now United Methodist) Church, an African American congregation east of Philadelphia and up a winding country road. James Chaney knew the area well and had been often to the church to encourage members to risk attempting to register and they agreed. They then were targeted by Klan members. One night, as some church members attended a finance meeting, the Klan set up an ambush and several members were beaten. The mother and brother of Ms. Jewell, whom we met at the church, were beaten severely. Forty plus years later, her eyes still well with tears as she tells the story. Many of us did, too.
Before Ms. Jewell spoke, we met the Honorable James Young, Mayor of Philadelphia, the city’s first African American mayor. He had many interesting things to share, but in response to my question about the racial mix of the city (56% white and 42% African American, with a sizable percentage of Native American [Choctaw] as well), it became clear that he had won the election because he carried two of the three predominantly white-populated election districts. Big change.
Mayor Young made very clear that he intends to be and is everybody’s mayor, white, black, Native American or otherwise. He serves all people. He also made clear, however, the challenges involved. In response to one student’s question about trying to help people of his race, he asked in return (the student is African American), “If you own a company and 75% of the employees you hire are African American, are you helping your people?” And the question tagging along, but not spoken: would doing so be right or wrong? That’s a tough question.
Much of the talk at this gathering was about how Philadelphia is changing. To make changes, people have to make prior assessments of current conditions. How much has actually changed? How does one tell? What still needs to be done? What criteria will we use to decide? It requires careful interpretation, which has its own risks. President Obama as Candidate Obama, for example, had to make strategic decisions about to what degree would he permit race to play a role in his campaign. Not that he would raise the issue (imagine the risk), but he had to know that people would ask him about it, and how he responded would be telling.
God bless the folk in Philadelphia. A citizens group of all races in the county have been working for years to bring the perpetrators of the murders in 1964 to justice. And they have been successful, even though it has taken a long, long time. They fully admit that they still have work to do, but they want us to know about the good will of the majority of the citizenry. We’re listening.