The Neshoba County, Mississippi marker memorializing the deaths of three civil rights workers was recently stolen. The sign commemorates the tragic June 21, 1964 killings of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney by the KKK. A local official said that for that type of damage to have been done to a steel pole, “they had to use a bulldozer- or total a truck or something.”
Unfortunately, this is only the latest event in a series of similar Klan-sponsored crimes. The same sign was tagged with “KKK” and painted all black on separate, previous occasions. The site marker near the Tallahatchie River where Emmett Till’s body was removed on August 31, 1955 fell victim to several rounds of a shotgun. Susan Glisson, director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, believes these attacks are meant to “silence their stories,” but “part of our hope in putting up signs is to lift up these stories that have been silenced so long.”
In their own time, the deaths of these young men dominated national headlines for weeks on end. Till’s murder showed the country the more gruesome, sexualized side of the Movement yet unseen by the masses. When the three young men- two of whom were white (Andrew and Michael) and one black (James) - went missing, the nation responded with disgust and disbelief. By ending these four lives, the men responsible effectively made martyrs of unknown soldiers and drove the nation to make moves to disassociate itself with such violent hate.
These modern attacks on the memories of the victims appear both desperate and ignorant. They are very tangible reminders that the racial hate that threw Emmett Till in the Tallahatchie River was not washed away with the current, nor was the fear and prejudice behind the disappearance of the three young men lost with their bodies. Unfortunately, it is still deeply rooted in some parts of our country- or at the very least in some parts of Mississippi. We cannot allow these stories to be silenced with our silence.
Emmett Till, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney deserve both our recognition and our refusal to cooperate with the hate that killed them.
A Tennessee high school teacher took his class to the Neshoba County marker to learn about the hate crimes of the past, but the stolen sign and desecrated pole taught them a great deal more than the sign alone could have.