PHILADELPHIA, NESHOBA COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI – Although the State of Mississippi now officially honors Civil Rights leaders killed in the state, the killings continue.
I was a Freedom Movement organizer in Mississippi from 1963 to ’65. We were constantly plagued by fear, frustration and anger. Those feelings still permeate the African American and Native American communities of the state, especially in the rural areas.
With good reason.
Last week here in Neshoba County, I visited the grave of James Chaney, a young Civil Rights worker killed along with Freedom Fighters Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner by a racist Neshoba County sheriff and his deputies 52 years ago.
Hours later I visited the grave of Rexdale Henry, a Native American activist, killed while in the custody of the current Neshoba County sheriff. I also met with the grieving parents of Michael McDougle, a 29 year old African American who died while in the custody of that same sheriff and his deputies.
Furthermore, I spoke to the mother of Jonathan Sanders, an African American 39 years old, who was killed last year when he stood up to a Stonewall, Mississippi, police officer who was beating up Sanders’ friend. The murder took place on a country road in Clarke County, not far from here.
Between 1961 and 1966, eight people (that we know of) were killed in Mississippi while fighting for equality: Herbert Lee, Medgar Evers, Louis Allen, Andy Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, Wayne Yancey and Vernon Dahmer.
Today in Mississippi, everywhere you go there are plaques and monuments honoring those who were killed fighting for equality. There’s at least one “Martin Luther King, Jr.” highway in county after county. There are many streets and roads named for “Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney,” as is the state’s FBI building. Mississippi’s largest airport is named for Medgar Evers and there are official state markers at almost all sites where Civil Rights activities took place.
There’s a big highway sign directing tourists to the spot where Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were killed.
There’s no souvenir stand there (yet), but business leaders of Neshoba County and Philadelphia have figured out how to cash in on the killings. Every year they help sponsor a memorial service for the three martyrs.
Of course, the Chamber of Commerce types paper over the involvement of the Neshoba County sheriff and his deputies. In advertising the memorial service this year, the Neshoba County Democrat, the area’s leading newspaper, said Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner “were ambushed and later shot by the Ku Klux Klan.”
That’s only part of the story, though.
When they were forced to re-open the case 30 years after the killings, state and federal government investigators found that the murders were well planned by conspirators that included men from the White Citizens’ councils, the state police and the Neshoba County sheriff’s office, as well as from the Ku Klux Klan.
Nobody was ever convicted on murder charges, but several of the conspirators received light jail sentences for violating the civil rights of the three young men through the act of killing them.
Pointing the spotlight elsewhere
The State of Mississippi recently closed the Chaney-Schwerner-Goodman case. Both Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP and John Steele, a civil rights activist, objected. They both believe the probe did not sufficiently uncover the complicity of state and local officials.
When Steele was a child growing up in Neshoba County, he and his family worked with Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney. He was among the last people to see the three civil rights workers alive.
Every year since the murder, Steele’s family conducted activities to memorialize them. With the passing of his parents, Steele is now carrying on the tradition by organizing activities once a year to honor all civil rights martyrs. It was through participating in this year’s events that I met the Henry, Sanders and McDougle families.
Steele believes that one reason the State of Mississippi closed the murder case was to try and hide the role of law enforcement agencies in order to take the spotlight off of today’s sheriffs, deputies and city police officers.
If this is true, the plan is not working, at least not entirely.
Cops have free rein
A report presented to the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent says “Three brutal murders in police custody have occurred in Mississippi … [that are] eerily reminiscent of the events of June 21, 1964, when three civil rights activists seeking to register African Americans to vote were … [murdered after being] arrested for speeding and taken to the Neshoba County jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi.”
It says that Rexdale Henry, a leader of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, was arrested for “failure to pay a traffic fine” on July 14, 2015. A few days after his arrest, he was found dead in his cell.
The report was written by attorneys at the United States Human Rights Network (USHRN) and the Cold Case Justice Initiative of Syracuse University.
Henry, 53, had been an active advocate for Native American rights.
About nine months prior to Henry’s death, Michael McDougle an African-American 29 years old, had died in the same Neshoba County jail.
According to the USHRN, “Attorney Carlos Moore, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of McDougle’s wife stated that ‘McDougle was beaten and tasered by officers of the Philadelphia Police Department on the evening of Nov. 1, 2014 while in handcuffs.'”
He was found dead in his cell early the next morning.
“Although an autopsy was conducted by the state, the contents of the autopsy, including cause and manner of death, have not been provided to the family,” the USHRN report states.
The report also describes the murder of an unarmed black man, Jonathan Sanders, by Kevin Herrington, an officer of the Stonewall, Mississippi, police department.
The report states, “Sanders, who trained horses … was at a gas station with one of his animals at about 10 p.m. Wednesday, July 8, 2015, when he saw an altercation between Herrington and another white man, whom Sanders knew. … Sanders approached them and asked Herrington to leave the other man alone. … after Sanders left, Herrington … said, ‘I’m gonna get that n****r.’
” … Herrington then got in his car and drove after Sanders, who was [driving a buggy pulled by his horse]. The officer turned on his police lights when he was just behind Sanders. The lights startled the horse, which took off at a sprint, throwing Sanders off his buggy. Jonathan immediately began to run after his horse, unaware of what was going on behind him. Herrington proceeded to chase Jonathan, yanking him to the ground. Herrington then wrapped his arms around [Sanders’] neck, placing him a chokehold for more than 20 minutes.
“One of the witnesses, who works as a correctional officer in Stonewall, came out to confront Herrington, asking the officer to let Sanders go … so that the correctional officer could perform CPR on him, but Herrington declined. … Sanders was dead by the time help arrived … .”
Neither the family nor their attorneys have been provided with autopsy results.
Herrington was exonerated by the Stonewall police department.
Attorney C.J. Lawrence, who represents the Henry family, said [Stonewall] is a town where “the cops have free rein.”
Murder has been legalized
When I worked in Mississippi in the 1960s, murder was considered illegal. To beat the rap, police officers had to claim they didn’t do it.
Today, murder by police officers such as Kevin Herrington is perfectly legal.
The USHRN report says: “Extra-judicial killings by the police, the all-too-common practice that ignited today’s Civil Rights movement, now number more than 1,100 per year.”
The report concludes that the “three brutal murders in police custody [that] have occurred in Mississippi … are representative of the most egregious failure of the United States Government to respond in good faith” to police procedure reforms recommended by the United Nations Working Group of experts on People of African Descent.
At a graveside service for Rexdale Henry that I attended last week, Diane Nash, a leading organizer of the lunch counter sit-ins in the ’60s, said “I knew Rexdale. He was a wonderful person, a person of substance, a wonderful father and grandfather.
“We will not rest until those who murdered him get the justice they deserve.”
Photo: Gathering of family and friends for Rexdale Henry, a beloved leader of a band of Choctaw Indians who was murdered by Mississippi cops. | Justice for Rexdale W. Henry Facebook page