Sunday, June 21, 2009

Day 128/365 Baseball Bats and Gasoline-Soaked Rags

June 21, 1964 - Bogue Chitto, 13 miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi.

I have such a faint memory of this event - just a memory of my dad standing in the doorway in the evening telling my mom: "They found those boys out in a dam."

I wondered "why would it matter if boys were playing at a dam? how could they be *in* a dam?"

Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman.

Poster children for the civil rights movement. Notice to white, northern, middle-class America that the civil rights movement had arrived at their front door, and it was claiming their children right along with those poor black southern children.

As a child, all the civil rights stuff was pretty removed from my existence, even living in Louisiana. The marches hadn't really arrived yet where I was, my classmates would not disappear from our newly integrated classrooms until the new school year started, and the few black people I came in contact with were people I adored (and people I had to listen to -Sunday School aides or maids that worked in my friends homes and ruled the kids with iron hands).

Being white and a child, I had the luxury of ignorance as well as not of having much at stake, no matter which way the struggle went.

Until the dam.

For some reason, finding out the boys from New York had been found right along with a black boy (and all three of them were just boys in their early twenties) from Mississippi brought it all home to me. In my little 8 year old mind I was certain someone would come at night, and I would end up buried under mounds of dirt. I had nightmares about it, dreaming of digging and not being able to breathe.

Thank god the actual details weren't released then: James Chaney was "savagely" beaten, both arms broken (one in two places),a crushed elbow, endured "pathological trauma" to his groin area, a broken jaw and a crushed right shoulder. He was shot once in the head. Both Schwerner and Goodman were were shot through the heart. The three were burned, and then buried with their car in the earthen dam.

But like I said - I was a little white child. I had nothing to worry about.

Not like the black children.

Or the Freedom Summer workers who actually came down south and joined in, all of them, black, white, Jewish, atheist, old, young.

Imagine how terrifying it was for them. Sitting there waiting for those boys to come back.

Knowing that there were people who hated them enough to actually kill them, burn them, and bury them in a dam.

"On the day of their disappearance, a Freedom Summer volunteer in Merdian, Miss., wrote a letter which concludes with the following:

"Still no word from the missing people. It must be 11 by now. No one has really said anything about the kinds of things that we're all thinking could have happened to them. The people who've been out looking just came back. Now we talk about the Klan. The FBI is trying to find some grounds to get into the case full strength. Wish they'd hurry up about it.

"Hot here, down to 95 now in the office, which is an improvement. Everyone now is very quiet, just sitting, and watching out of the darkened windows a little bit, watching the cars that circle. There's a couple of people standing around on the corner. One of them is a little kid who gets the license number of the circling cars.

"Besides that, there's nothing out there, just a kind of brightly lit street, with the electric wires crisscrossing in front of the window, and the darkness behind you when you sit in the window. Nothing to do but play ping pong or read and wait for the phone to ring. I've been reading "All Quiet on the Western Front." Somehow it's appropriate, or maybe not. We'll see . . ." *
*To order a copy of "Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers & Poetry 1964 Freedom Summer,visit

Two historical footnotes to this tragedy:

When the FBI dive teams were looking for the three civil rights workers,they found seven other bodies of black victims -people missing, but their disappearance was either not reported or ignored.

In 2000, evidence was given that the FBI had enlisted a member of the Mob, Gregory Scarpa, Sr., to help "jog" memories of where the bodies might be found. A member of the Colombo crime family, Scarpa told his girlfriend he had forced a Mississippi Klansman to reveal the whereabouts of the victims by placing a gun in his mouth.

To all of those nameless volunteers, who sat in those hot, dark offices,not knowing whether the next car would be full of nooses, angry men with baseball bats or guns, or jars of gasline with rags stuffed in them - I have no idea where that kind of courage comes from, but I am forever grateful for yours.

And for those of you who do not remember your history: what were all these volunteers doing in Mississippi, in that hot summer of 1964?

Voter registration.

Just trying to register Americans citizens to vote.

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