City of Brotherly Love…?
Philadelphia, a small town in central Mississippi, was the scene where activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were killed in June of 1964 by members of the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement.
Schwerner and Chaney had been running a Freedom School to promote voter registration rights and to empower African Americans in the midst of the oppressive system they were enduring; they led this Freedom School at Mount Zion Methodist Church just outside of Philadelphia. On the night of June 16th, 1964, members of the Klan assaulted Mount Zion church members and burned down their church to lure Schwerner and his friends back to the area.
We sat down in McClelland Café with Jewel Rush McDonald—a woman whose mother and brother were beaten by the Klan on June 16th, 1964—and learned more about this horrific experience. In the 60s, McClelland Café and other places in the neighborhood served as safe havens for civil rights activists. We enjoyed a hearty and filling Southern meal prepared by Beverly and Randy who carry on the tradition of this family-owned restaurant.
It wasn’t until 2005—forty-one years later—that a man was charged and sentenced to 60 years in prison for his part in the deaths of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. He is still serving time today.
While in town, we also got the chance to spend time with the first Black mayor of Philadelphia, James Young. Serving his second term as mayor, Young also serves as a pastor in a nearby town and is a paramedic! He acknowledges the horrible past of his community, but also sees progress and has hopes for a brighter future. He reminded us of the importance of building relationships with those who differ from oneself, and that in order to change perceptions, you have to get people to visit.
After lunch and conversation, our group moved on to Greenwood, MS, where we witnessed the huge disparities between Black and White neighborhoods. Many scenes from the movie “The Help” were filmed in Greenwood. Crossing the river from Baptist Town (a poor African American neighborhood established in the 1800s) to Grand Ave (adjacent affluent White neighborhood) was a startling juxtaposition.
As our group continues to confront the past and the ways we have explicitly and implicitly participated in the perpetuation of an oppressive system that functions still today, we are being challenged and stirred to build more diverse relationships and to be the change we want to see.