Miss. Community to Document KKK Slayings

Associated Press/June 18, 2004
By Lynda Edwards

Philadelphia, Miss. -- Forty years after three civil rights activists were executed by the Ku Klux Klan, tourism officials are documenting their demise in hopes of retelling history and drawing visitors to the town where their killers were once protected.

A black history brochure that documents the final hours of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney is aimed at bringing needed tourist dollars to this largely rural area northeast of Jackson.

Most of the 5,000 brochures printed just two weeks ago by the Philadelphia tourism bureau have already been grabbed up as this weekend's anniversary of the June 21 slaying draws near.

Chaney, a 21-year-old black man from Mississippi, and Goodman, 20, and Schwerner, 24 - both white men from New York City - were part of the 1964 "Freedom Summer" program in which young civil rights workers organized voter education and registration campaigns.

The three disappeared when they went to investigate a fire at a black church in Neshoba County. Weeks later, their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam a few miles from the church.

No stone or plaque marks the area where the three were executed so David Vowell, director of Philadelphia's tourism bureau, photographed the spot and gives directions in the brochure.

The brochure also maps the activists' path from Mount Zion United Methodist Church, which was burned to punish congregants who helped with voter registration drives, and guides visitors to the jail where the young men were held while Ku Klux Klan members drove toward the town as night fell.

Alex Thomas, 30, who directs the Mississippi Development Authority's tourism division, proposed the brochure idea to the predominantly white Philadelphia tourism bureau in February.

"When I was in high school, history textbooks didn't discuss Medgar Evers' murder or the church burnings and killings in Philadelphia," said Thomas, who is black. "The three men killed in Philadelphia were heroes who made life better for all Americans. That's history that I would like my daughter to know."

Mississippi draws 33 million tourists who spend $5.7 million annually. But Thomas wondered why Mississippi balked at confronting tragic history like some Southern states. In Tennessee, for example, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated is now a stop on many civil rights tours.

The issue was broached when the MDA did a January tourism assessment of Neshoba County. The obvious draw was Pearl River Resort's casinos, golf course and restaurants on the neighboring Choctaw Reservation. "But for years, people who came to the resort for a convention or golfing would call us asking for directions to Mount Zion," Vowell said.

"No one was ever convicted of the murders so I guess there were people here who believed that if the past was never discussed, it would fade away," Vowell said. "That changed over the years. Now people realize that unless they put the truth out in the light, they can never move into a future where Philadelphia is proud of its cultural heritage."

Many residents agreed. Philadelphia's Community Development Partnership passed a resolution condemning the murders this May. Neshoba County supervisors voted to give $5,000 to the committee planning an anniversary memorial for the activists.

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