Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Freedom Summer

I remember too well when three Civil Rights workers went missing in Mississippi in 1964. It's hard to remember how one felt fifty years ago, especially when one was only 14 as I was. But I recall feeling sickly uneasy, confused, and unsure of what it meant.

In fact, until I went to college at 18, I was still struggling to understand it all. Maybe we do don't have the full capacity as teenagers to know what everything means. And of course in those days, there was no internet and one rarely used phone long distance.

But by the time I was 18, I began to feel sick about being a white southerner. And so I began to read and study all I could about the world I'd been born into. I'm ashamed beyond measure that I knew about the Holocaust before I knew about the horrors in my own land. I have spent my life thinking about how hatred can turn people into monsters. And in the South, the ones who saw what was happening and did nothing were also monsters, just as those in Germany did the same thing.

This is the fiftieth anniversary of the disappearance of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner. God rest their souls. And may we never forget their sacrifice.

I was with my family at a fast food place in my town not long ago, and President Obama was on the TV in the dining room. And a group of high school boys was looking at him and shouting, making wisecracks, and saying unspeakable things. I'm sure they heard the same things at home or on one of the hate radio stations their parents listen to. I cringed, said nothing. They left finally.

One hesitates to write about his or her own feelings about that Freedom Summer in the South fifty years ago. It makes it appear it was about us. But in the end, it's the only way we can deal with what we see and know.

I remember when I was in my early twenties I was reading a book about the murders, and I had a hideous, horrible anxiety attack. It was so bad I hoped I would die. Part of it was shame, of course. Part of it was embarrassment to let anyone outside the south hear my accent. But mostly it was the agony of knowing that at the time no one was convicted of their murder. True, several men served time for civil rights violations, but until many years later, most of those involved with this and dozens of other such killings walked free.

Things are unbelievably better now. But some days when I hear certain politicians from the South speak, I don't feel like we've come very far at all. Hatred is alive and well. But the people of good will must speak out, stand up, be strong, and not be afraid.

Linda and I are members of the NAACP. We give to the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups who support what is good and right in race relations. We do a tiny, tiny amount. But I tell myself that it is at least something.

Never forget Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. Fifty years have passed, but when fifty more have gone by and many of us have long passed away, teach your children their names. Teach them what hate does. And maybe only then will the South rise again.

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