LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Fifty years ago this weekend, one of the most chilling moments in the civil rights struggle. This was a news report from June of 1964 from CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite.
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WALTER CRONKITE: Good evening. Three young civil rights workers disappeared in Mississippi on Sunday night near the central Mississippi town of Philadelphia about 50 miles northeast of Jackson.
WERTHEIMER: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were found dead more than a month later buried in an earthen dam after being shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Neshoba County, Mississippi, was slow to confront that dark past. Now a half-century later, the focus is on making sure young people know that legacy. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports as part of our ongoing look at the events of Freedom Summer.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Freedom Summer drew hundreds of young Americans to Mississippi in 1964. Their mission was to register black voters and teach African-American students at makeshift Freedom Schools. The rural Mt. Zion Church in Neshoba County was to host a school. But on June 16, the Klan made sure that would not happen.
JEWEL RUSH MCDONALD: They burned the church down that night.
ELLIOTT: Jewel Rush McDonald is a longtime member of Mt. Zion. Her mother and brother had been at a church board morning that evening and were late getting home.
MCDONALD: Finally they came in, and my mother was all upset. We looked at them. We said, what happened to ya'll? And she said, we were beaten. There was Klan, white people, outside the church tonight.
ELLIOTT: When James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner came to check on the church members days later on Father's Day, June 21, they were arrested by a sheriff's deputy and later released into a Klan ambush. It took 44 days to find their bodies.
The state of Mississippi didn't prosecute any of the murderers until Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen was convicted in 2005 - 41 years to the day since the three workers were killed. For many of those intervening years, there was an uneasy silence in Philadelphia, Mississippi, even in the black community, says Jewel McDonald.
MCDONALD: We didn't talk about this. And I guess we just - something that we wanted to hide and get rid of and just leave it in the past.
ELLIOTT: For the white community, it started with denial back in '64. Dick Molpus was a teenager.
DICK MOLPUS: There was a sense that there was a hoax, that Misters Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman were up in New York City, that this was just a way to get publicity. And there was a feeling that the national media was treating Philadelphia as a bunch of uneducated rednecks, hillbillies. And that became the topic of conversation rather than that there was this evil.
ELLIOTT: Molpus was Mississippi's secretary of state in 1989 and for the first time, offered an official apology at a memorial service at Mt. Zion Church.
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MOLPUS: We deeply regret what happened here 25 years ago. We wish we could undo it.
ELLIOTT: Molpus says his intention was to put Mississippi and his hometown on a path toward redemption. But it was slow to come. Ten years ago, a local interracial group, the Philadelphia Coalition, called for justice and pressured authorities to prosecute the murderers who were still living in the area. Jim Prince is editor and publisher of the Neshoba Democrat newspaper and co-chair of the coalition. He says the town had to acknowledge its place in history.
JIM PRINCE: This was the Pearl Harbor of the civil rights movement.
ELLIOTT: It got the nation's attention and fueled passage of the Civil Rights Act. Prince says today Philadelphia is living the legacy of those changes with a two-term African-American mayor serving a majority white city.
PRINCE: And hopefully, you know, by the trials and difficulties that we've been through in the American South in particular, we've learned a lot and we're able to be - my headline was, Mississippi inspiring, instead of, Mississippi burning.
LEROY CLEMONS: Anybody - anybody realize that this is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer?
ELLIOTT: Leroy Clemons is standing in the center of a group of teenagers who've gathered at the old train depot in Philadelphia. He's quizzing them on the murders.
CLEMONS: Why'd they get killed for coming here? What - why'd they get killed? Anybody know what they came to do?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They were helping blacks get registered to vote.
CLEMONS: They came to help the blacks register to vote.
ELLIOTT: After co-chairing the Philadelphia Coalition, Clemons is now leading this spinoff - the Neshoba Youth Coalition.
CLEMONS: This is the civil rights movement. These are kids who are actually fulfilling the dream.
ELLIOTT: Clemons says it's about fighting ignorance and apathy, the conditions that created the climate where evil could thrive 50 years ago, he says, and today - the root of Mississippi's entrenched social problems. These youth have worked to bring down teen pregnancy and school dropout rates here. This month, the students are performing a skit about the Klan murders.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Wait a minute sir, who are you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm Edgar Ray Killen - protector of the Southern way of life.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Jim Crow is dead.
ELLIOTT: Afterwards, the players talk about how delving into this history motivates them to make sure Neshoba County never forgets its past.
SABYIUS BOGGAN: And even adults can see it. Like, hey, these young people are, like, all into these civil rights. And we're sitting at home - don't even know anything about it. We got to get up and do something.
K.J. PEEBLES: Hopefully, it'll push for them to start teaching it more in school. Instead of just a couple of weeks of civil rights and...
KEANNA RUSH: I had Jim Crow's dead, and when I said, what is Jim Crow, they were, like, laughing at me and kind of making fun of it because we go to different schools. They don't teach it at my school at all. They don't teach civil rights at all in my school.
ELLIOTT: That was Sabyius Boggan, K.J. Peebles and Keanna Rush - all high schoolers. Peebles says he's learned that history matters.
PEEBLES: If you didn't know what - how something happened, you won't know how to stop it from happening again. So it's good to know why it happened, how it happened and what happened.
ELLIOTT: For Michael Schwerner's widow, Rita Bender, the gains made after the Neshoba murders are at risk today.
RITA BENDER: It's disheartening to feel that, particularly in the last few years, there have been some very serious backward steps.
ELLIOTT: She points to the Supreme Court's rollback of the Voting Rights Act and lack of equal quality public education. Rights, she says, should've been guaranteed after the Civil War.
BENDER: National citizenship by everyone. That promise has not been kept.
ELLIOTT: Bender is in Mississippi this week encouraging youth to embrace the Civil Rights Movement. Her message...
BENDER: Stand up. Stand up for your rights because they're all of our rights. I want my children and my grandchildren and your children to have a country that is doing right by all its children.
ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.