New era through an old lens

Share via
Times Staff Writer

Some places are defined by a single event. Roswell, N.M., will always be known for space aliens, Dallas for assassination. And this little town in the Piney Woods of eastern Mississippi will forever be the site of one of the most brutal crimes of the civil rights era.

But Philadelphia -- situated in a county once dubbed Bloody Neshoba -- can now add a remarkable footnote to its most nefarious chapter: The rural county where three men were killed for trying to help black people vote has cast the majority of its ballots to put a black man in the White House.

Much has changed here since African Americans like Sylvia Campbell, now 74, were told they couldn’t vote unless they correctly answered how many bubbles were in a bar of soap.


But much is the same. For all the excitement about Barack Obama and his history-making run for president, there is anxiety, too, because the present is still a hostage to the past. Everything in this slow town of one-way streets and more than 80 churches is viewed through the lens of race. Obama’s success makes some people as anxious as it makes others proud.

“It’s just the impossibility of it,” Campbell said again and again of the presumed Democratic nominee. She had just come from a weeknight Bible study at her church, Mt. Zion United Methodist, which the Ku Klux Klan once burned down. “I know Mississippians. Barack Obama will never change the uneducated whites from the South. I don’t care what he does. If he made some of them millionaires, he’ll never change them.”

Obama’s victory in the primaries comes just as Philadelphia prepares to mark the 44th anniversary of the killings that put it reluctantly on the map. Racial tensions are not as violently overt as they were then; today the slights are subtle, from the glance averted on the street to the job application that is never considered. With five months of fierce presidential campaigning ahead -- black against white -- there is a sense that simmering racial tensions are about to boil again.

“What happened all those years ago -- that just keeps coming up,” said Doris Gray, 81, who is white. The presence of an out-of-town newspaper reporter in her son’s chili cafe not 24 hours after Obama cinched the nomination confirmed her fear that people are going to start poking around in matters better left be.


Around here, that always leads to the same date, June 21, 1964, Father’s Day to be exact. Mt. Zion, a black church on the outskirts of town, lay in charred rubble, and three civil rights workers -- two white and one black -- came on the heels of that violence to register black people to vote.

The three were stopped by law enforcement officers in league with the Ku Klux Klan and were jailed for speeding. Released that night, they were chased down a country road and shot, their bodies found six weeks later in an earthen dam outside town.


Eighteen reputed Klansmen went to trial on federal civil rights charges, including Edgar Ray Killen, the part-time Baptist preacher believed to have masterminded the plan. An all-white jury deadlocked in Killen’s case. The story was fodder for the 1989 movie “Mississippi Burning,” which played right here at the old State Theatre. A new trial held in 2005 finally sent an 80-year-old Killen to prison.

With every turn of events, the media converged on Philadelphia, an otherwise uneventful town with a population of more than 7,000 -- 55% white, 40% black. But no one ever seemed interested in its friendly people, low crime rate, quaint shops or the county fair that brought visitors in from all over.

The way it looked to some, everything boomeranged to the town’s racist past. Ronald Reagan chose the fair to announce his 1980 candidacy for president -- Nancy sat on his lap in a wood rocker, red Mississippi mud on her white shoes -- and critics questioned whether he was implicitly condoning racism by deciding to come here at all.


Now there’s Obama, Philadelphia’s most sensitive subject personified.

“I just wish he’d stop talking about race,” said Taneil Long, 30, who owns a nail salon on Beacon Street.

A client walked in, a young black woman, with her daughter in tow. Most of Long’s patrons are black, ever since seven years ago when word got out that she was dating a black man. Most of her white clients deserted her. Her white landlady told her to move out. Her cousin from Memphis hasn’t spoken to her since.

Long is biracial -- part Vietnamese and part white. A Democrat, she likes what Obama has to say, but the subject of race repels her. It runs against the local grain to discuss the matter openly, and it’s hard to avoid it whenever Obama’s face comes on TV. In fact, that’s when she usually changes the channel.


She doesn’t think an Obama presidency would change the minds of people who haven’t changed their minds already.

“It’s just unbelievable how hateful some people can be,” she said. But then she decides that maybe a black president isn’t such a bad idea. “If he goes in there and does a remarkable job, maybe some will say, ‘Hey, maybe I didn’t have the right feeling about that situation.’ But as far as Neshoba County goes? You will never get nobody to admit it.”

The South of the Old Confederacy is changing, outpacing the rest of the country in population growth and jobs -- CNN, Coca-Cola and FedEx are headquartered there. Once-rural states like Georgia, Florida and Tennessee now have more racially tolerant metropolitan centers.

But in Deep South states like this one, change has come more slowly. Two Indian casinos outside of town have boosted the economy, and Philadelphia is, as they like to say, fixin’ to get a bowling alley.

A stronger black leadership has stepped up to demand better police protection and community services, such as equal distribution of parks money, making sure the one in the black neighborhood doesn’t get short shrift.

James Prince, editor and publisher of the Neshoba County Democrat, framed the progress this way: “There are people who, if they could get away with not doing the work in the black park, probably would, but they are not going to get away with it.”


Patricia Madison is a clerk at All About Her, a boutique that sells purses a few doors down from Long’s nail salon. It’s owned by a young black woman, and that in itself is a departure from how things used to be.

Still, Madison, a 39-year-old African American, can point to uneasy moments. A restaurant with an all-white staff advertised for a waitress, but wouldn’t give her a second look. When her white friend invited her to her wedding and the groom’s parents objected, she stayed away so as not to create a disturbance.

Maybe Obama’s candidacy -- or presidency -- could help break stubborn stereotypes, she mused, sipping a soda between customers. “Maybe people might view us different -- see that we are not ignorant. Some of us have class. We can do more than work in the kitchen and be somebody’s housekeeper.”


Just about any adult you talk with here has experienced racial prejudice from one side or the other. Steve Wilkerson, a white lifelong resident of Philadelphia, worked in high school for a service station with one bathroom for men, one for women and one for “coloreds.” The first two were cleaned daily, the third once a week.

Now Wilkerson, 55, owns Steve’s on the Square, a landmark clothing store downtown. He is a member of a multiracial commission that has worked to bring healing to Philadelphia: The attorney general issued a formal apology, and Highway 19 now bears the names of the activists who died there: Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old white college student from New York; Michael Schwerner, a 24-year-old white social worker also from New York; and James Chaney, a 21-year-old black man from nearby Meridian.

But Obama’s strong performance in a county that is 65% white is less a sign of racial tolerance than of white flight to the Republican Party. Those voting in the Democratic primary were mainly African American or white liberals.


Wilkerson predicted Obama will have a hard time winning Mississippi’s white voters in November. Those who do support him will do so discreetly.

“They won’t have bumper stickers and lawn signs. It would not be comfortable.”

On this warm, humid night, Margaret White, 54, stood outside Mt. Zion, the church she has attended all her life. Today it is rebuilt in fire-resistant brick rather than wood. The old bell -- all that was left from the arson -- is in place and a gray stone engraved with three names stands outside the sanctuary, laid with a wreath every June.

It’s a proud time for the church, but there are no high-fives or yelps for Obama’s victory. “Low-key is the way,” the Rev. Willie Young tells his flock.

White went into work clapping her hands the morning after Obama won. But she was careful not to flaunt her enthusiasm in front of her white colleagues at Mississippi State University, where she works as a program assistant teaching nutrition. “Here, you have to know somebody to get a job,” she said. “You can’t afford to tick people off.”

She doesn’t hold much hope that Obama’s rise will reform old-school Southerners, but she can’t help but notice the changing attitude of the next generation drawn to his candidacy.

Color is not the dividing wall it once was. While neighborhoods remain somewhat segregated, workplaces are more diverse, biracial couples more common. Children -- black and white -- play together on sports teams; they grow up not only to attend each other’s weddings, but to take part as bridesmaids and groomsmen.


“One day, the old history will just die off and race will still be there, but it won’t matter so much,” White said, swatting away the mosquitoes as children, freed from Bible study, ran in circles around the memorial stone, oblivious to its meaning.