Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Day 6 – Meridian, Mississippi

James Earl Chaney was one of three civil rights workers killed early in the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign.

James Earl Chaney has just returned from training civil freedom workers in Oxford, Ohio. While he’s in Ohio, life continues in Mississippi: Chaney’s daughter has been born; and a black church Chaney’s been working with to host a Freedom School has been burned to the ground. He arrives home on Father’s Day. Before going home to meet his newborn daughter, Angela, Chaney and two other civil rights workers decide to visit the church.

After leaving Mt. Zion United Methodist the three young men – Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman -- are arrested by deputies in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They are released at 10:30 that night and told to leave town right away, presumably for their safety. They are pursued by Klansmen; Chaney’s car is forced off the road. The civil rights workers are pulled from the car, driven to a lonely gravel road and killed.

Their bodies, buried at a construction site, are found 6 weeks later. The Chaney and Schwerner families wanted their sons interred together, but Mississippi law prohibited it. The Klan could bury them together, but their families could not.
This morning we visit James’ grave. Angela will to join us after working 12 hours as a nurse and tell us about the parent stolen from her, the father she met only in story.

For many years James’ grave stood alone, separate from other graves in the cemetery. Now there is a second grave: Chaney’s mother died in 2007.

There are pebbles on top of the headstone, placed there in respect by prior visitors. To the right of the grave a rusted ballot box half-buried in the soil. The headstone is secured with huge metal brackets, far heavier than would be needed to secure the stone against wind or rain. The raw and rusting metal brackets are visually jarring against the fine gray granite of the headstone.

Something circular has been removed from the headstone. A picture? An icon? None of us knows.

The tombstone that covers James Earl Chaney’s body bears this inscription:

There are those who are alive yet will never live.
There are those who are dead yet will live forever.
Great deeds inspire and encourage the living.

We slowly gather around the grave, quietly take pictures, stand silently. Softly, ever so softly, Leon Dunkley begins to sing*:

I went down to Long Kesh to see Bobby Sands
He was not there but his spirit keeps on walking
I can see his smiling face on the men and on the women
And the children…they sang freedom songs

Another verse follows...
I went down to Atlanta to see Martin King…
And then others...
I went down to Mississippi to see James Chaney…
I went over to India to see Mahatma Gandhi…
I went over to Dublin to see Bernadette Devlin…

Other voices join with Leon’s:
I went down to Mississippi to see Fannie Lou Hamer
She was not there but her spirit keeps on walking
I can see her smiling face on the men and on the women
And the children…they sang freedom songs

I went up to New York to see Malcolm X…
I went down to Selma to see James Reeb…

I went down to Long Kesh to see Bobby Sands
He was not there but his spirit keeps on walking
I can see his smiling face on the men and on the women
And the children…they sang freedom songs
And the children…they sang freedom songs.

The tombstone has been decorated with artificial flowers and while we are singing we notice something non-artificial: feces. It looks human. It looks recent. We get a plastic bag and clean the feces off James' grave. Arrange the artificial flowers, tend this restless resting place.

Janice Marie Johnson leads a graveside prayer and we sing more songs: freedom songs, solidarity songs, commitment songs. It is raining lightly. Angela has not arrived. We clean the tombstone thoroughly with Windex and paper towels provided by Jimmy, our bus driver. Back on the bus. After the bus turns around, a police car arrives, light bar flashing. There ‘s no reason to be afraid here, but in that moment, that flash of blue lights, I learn something more about gravel roads in deserted woods, even in daylight.
In the back half of the bus we don’t hear the conversation, only see Gordon Gibson leave the bus, go to the police car. He returns accompanied by the police officer, who steps on the bus to tell us that Angela Chaney has been delayed at work, cannot join us, sends her apologies. Seems that James Earl Chaney’s son-in-law is a Mississippi police officer.
Grief and hatred, fear and progress. Jimmy closes the door and drives on to Philadelphia, Mississippi and the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church.

* Long Kesh (in Meridian, MS) - Adapted by Leon Dunkley from the original by Marshall Stearn of the SNCC Freedom Singers

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