September 23, 2014 by

Red dirt roads, catfish farms, soybeans, and cotton. A ramshackle house, a gutted gas station and across the street, a Baptist church that could have been mistaken for a mansion. We were now undoubtedly in Mississippi.

We were a group of high school students from upstate New York, and our mission – now made all the more important by the events that have since unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri – was to help remember and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic 1964 Freedom Summer, during which over a thousand young people converged on Mississippi to help disenfranchised blacks register to vote.

Our trip began with a bible study led by John Perkins, the lively 87-year-old founder of The Perkins Center. After learning about the prophet Moses and the necessity of leadership, I was assigned to weeding the garden, the only source of fresh vegetables for the local area. Around noon, a thunderstorm chased us indoors, and we used the chance to visit Vera Mae, John’s wife. Bedridden and almost blind, she cried in appreciation as we sang spirituals around her bed.

Later that afternoon we walked silently through the spacious halls of a new photo gallery in downtown Jackson which displays the horrible realities of the Civil Rights Movement. Pictures of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and many others will forever remain in my memory as examples of people who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

The following day was devoted to a bus tour during which we saw the important sites of the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner murders. Standing at the murder site, seeing Neshoba County Jail and hearing the awful details turned my knowledge of these deaths into a personal hurt and anger. How could anyone be so incredibly hateful?

Forgiveness and love is the only answer. I recognized this especially clearly at a later stop in the tour, the Mount Zion Church. There, a black woman told how she had forgiven white supremacists who had severely beaten her mother and brother. A white woman stood next to her, telling her own story of guilt and shame — because the attackers had been her uncles and cousins. Through apology and forgiveness they are now “soul sisters,” and more importantly, an example of reconciliation.

At another forum, we talked about “the Movement Forward” and listened as veterans of the Civil Rights Movement told their stories and exhorted us young attendees to continue the fight for freedom and justice. Historian Taylor Branch implored that we not forget or misremember the Freedom Movement, and Marian Wright Edelman stressed the importance of a family held together by a husband and a wife, as well as the necessity of education. When asked who had financed different parts of Freedom Summer, she responded that the Lord had. This simple, clear answer reminded me that without God’s blessing, the Civil Rights Movement could never have succeeded.

Toward the end of the conference we attended a plenary session in the Tougaloo College gym, where Danny Glover challenged us to step up against the problems of today. Later, we listened in silence and reverence as the names of about 50 martyrs were called; my anger boiled as after almost every name the murderers were listed as “not convicted.”

We also stopped by Ruleville, home of Fannie Lou Hamer. Her memorial garden and a little museum showed how much this famous black woman was loved and revered by the people of Mississippi. Fannie’s life was one of practical activism deeply grounded in her Christian faith to make the world a better place.

Young people from the Bruderhof Communities visiting mississippi

Greenwood was our next stop. Once a nice neighborhood where the SNCC office had been and where volunteers such as our chaperone George Albertz worked in 1964, it is now impoverished. Houses and stores are shuttered, and yards are a mess. Still, people live there, and they are almost all black. This showed me that although a lot has improved, there is still a lot of work to do, especially to achieve economic equality between the races.

We spent that night in sharecroppers’ cabins which have been historically preserved for use as guest quarters, and then returned to Jackson, where we saw Medgar Evers’ home, now set up as a museum. It is a sobering place to visit. Blood stains on the concrete and the patched wall where the assassin’s bullet went through turned the story of Medgar’s death into a reality. Seeing his house, his children’s beds, and his wife Myrlie’s kitchen made me think how much he sacrificed. All the time he had been involved in the NAACP he had known that not only his life, but also his family’s lives, were at stake.

Our trip ended with a lively Baptist service in Okatibee Church and a visit to the grave of James Chaney. The headstone was held in place by large metal supports and his picture had been ripped away; the eternal flame is also no longer burning. How can people be so full of hatred that they desecrate the grave of an innocent man 50 years after his brutal murder?

I learned from this trip that the answer to such deep-rooted problems must be more than education, voting rights, and economic justice. It must include a full realization of Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.


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