John Lewis spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. He has spoken in the well of the U.S. House of Representatives. But if you’d told him in 1964 that one day he’d speak before an integrated crowd in Mississippi — one that featured a white former governor and black mayors of Philadelphia and Meridian — he’d have said “you were drinking something.”
That punch line, delivered Sunday at Neshoba County’s Mt. Zion Methodist Church, drew laughter from the overflow crowd — an amalgam of civil rights veterans, local politicians, parishioners, community members, students, press, tourists, and hangers-on like me. We’d gathered on the consecrated grounds of Mt. Zion to commemorate the lives of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who would have been 71, 70, and 74, respectively, had they not been murdered 50 years ago at the hands of the KKK and the local sheriffs (a distinction without much of a difference at the time.)
Philadelphia mayor James Young — Mississippi’s first African American elected (and reelected) in a majority-white town — underscored how much had changed for those in the crowd who’d once suffered abuse and intimidation by law enforcement: “Don’t worry if you get arrested,” he joked. “I can get you out.”
These moments of dark humor punctuated the service, a three-hour marathon of speeches, songs, and sweat (“Wouldn’t be Neshoba County without it,” William Winter, the former governor in attendance, remarked.) The tone was one part reunion: old comrades-in-arms sharing hugs and memories; and another part revival: the reawakening of a movement that had long since lost its spirit.
Hanging heavy in the air was the paradox of the myriad retrospectives about Mississippi Freedom Summer taking place this year. Mississippi has come farther in absolute terms than most of the volunteers in the summer of 1964 could have ever imagined. Yet Mississippi’s relative position at the bottom of national social and economic rankings has not budged. More critically, black Mississippians still occupy the same inferior position compared to whites on most, if not all, of those metrics.
“Our people are still at the bottom of the barrel,” former CORE organizer Dave Dennis said. “What are we going to do about it?”
Voting power, he pointed out, has not brought about the expected material progress. This was a common refrain: in a democratic society, political rights should ensure economic rights. Or so it was assumed.
Politically speaking, African Americans are the most successful racial minority in any major industrialized democracy. John Lewis, who sought to ask the question, “Whose side is the government on?” in his speech during the March on Washington, stood in Mt. Zion 51 years later as a senior member of Congress — alongside a black President of the United States, no less.
And yet many African Americans have not moved from the margins of the American economy. Average black wealth is a pittance compared to white wealth, and black job seekers are twice as likely to be unemployed as white ones.
Structural discrimination persists in many forms, from housing policies to criminal justice, and social science research shows us black job applicants still likely to face implicit prejudices. But, more often than not, education is the lever that perpetuates racial inequity. As former SNCC organizer Bob Moses said in an interview with The Root:
“We won’t be able to generate a post-racial society unless we solve the education issue, because in the 21st century, the economic issue is tied up with knowledge work, so the diffusion of knowledge across all spectrums of society becomes crucial. Without that, there’s very little hope of narrowing the growing inequality.”
The organizers of Freedom Summer understood this back in 1964. Voter registration attracted the most attention, but many of the volunteers came to battle white supremacy with blackboards and chalk. They established Freedom Schools around Mississippi to teach black students math, history, geography, literature — the knowledge that they had been systemically denied by their home state. Students also learned how to exercise the democratic rights that had been suppressed on the grounds of “illiteracy” or “intellectual inferiority.”
It was Mt. Zion’s decision to house a Freedom School that first drew the KKK’s ire. On the night of June 17, 1964, Klansmen descended on the church. They viciously beat the parishioners and set fire to the building. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner drove up from Meridian to investigate but weren’t allowed to return.
The incestuous relationship between race and poverty has left many of Mississippi’s schools as separate and unequal as they were in 1964. More than one-fourth of Mississippi public schools are at least 90 percent black. Another tenth are at least 90 percent white. And, just as in 1964, students in those identifiably black schools receive an inferior education. The “black schools” were three times more likely to be rated F than A or B in the 2012-13 school year. Meanwhile, three-fourths of the “white schools” were rated A or B, and none was rated lower than a C.
Without educational power, many black Mississippians have been denied the ability to accumulate economic power. And without economic power, it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend hard-won political power.
Speaker after speaker at Mt. Zion decried the recent wave of voter suppression efforts, aided by a Supreme Court that had once been the bulwark against such tactics. States’ rights is the same front for discrimination that it has always been, Rita Bender, the widow of Michael Schwerner, said. She called for the fulfillment of “national citizenship” promised in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. That entails full and equal access to the ballot as well as the education necessary to carry out the duties of the democratic process.
She won a rapturous reception inside the church, but the harder sell was always going to be with those who didn’t attend. That includes each of Mississippi’s current statewide elected officials — most of whom have supported voting restrictions and the persistent underfunding of public schools.
In 1964, challenging the state’s political orthodoxy cost blood and lives. The three men honored at the service made a sacrificial down payment so that future generations would be spared the expense.
However, the lower personal risk does not mean the issues of 2014 are any less important. All of Mississippi’s people deserve a good education and a job that pays the bills. We all deserve affordable healthcare, a safe neighborhood, and a clean environment. We all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. And we all deserve the right to defend each of these things at the polls.
The service at Mt. Zion showed how much Mississippi has changed in 50 years. The struggle for justice and equality has not.