If you are over 65 and have a darned good memory, you might have heard of Bogue Chitto, Miss. You also might know about it if you recreate or vacation or live in this wooded, swampy area largely in Neshoba County, which has a camping area and trails and lovely homes. Otherwise, you probably have not heard of it. But it is sacred ground.
For generations, it was a burial spot, home of an immense burial mound, for Choctaw Indians.
Then, one horrifying summer 47 years ago, it became a front-page news location. On June 21, 1964, two white New Yorkers who were trying to get black people (then called “Negroes”) to register to vote and a black man from the area who was working with them were detained by local law enforcement officials, put in jail, and not allowed to make a phone call.
They were released and then ambushed by some of the same law enforcement officials, along with a number of local Klansmen, and seized. The black man, James Chaney, 21, was beaten so badly that both of his arms were broken. He also was shot fatally.
The two white men, Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, 24, and Andrew Goodman, 20, were shot through the heart and killed instantly. Their car was set on fire and then buried in a huge earthen dam near Bogue Chitto. Lyndon Johnson, then president, was outraged when the civil rights workers disappeared. So was most of the rest of the nation.
When the bodies of the freedom workers and their car were found, and when local officials mocked efforts at justice, the nation was so inflamed that Congress passed the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964 and then a powerful Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Though it took decades to bring the murderers to justice — and some escaped justice altogether — the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner changed the nation.
It was one thing for black people to be beaten and killed in the Deep South over asking for their rights. It was entirely a different matter (sadly) for it to happen to whites from middle-class New York families.
I, along with many others who were young and worked in the civil rights movement in those days, have never forgotten Bogue Chitto.
I have been learning more about it from reading a truly great book about the subject called "We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi" by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray. Read it and weep, as the saying goes.
As I have been reading "We Are Not Afraid" (and I recommend it again, extremely highly), a thought keeps running through my mind. This great nation has undergone a revolution in human rights since 1964. It has been as big a revolution as the Revolution in 1776 and almost as important for human dignity as the Civil War, with immense ramifications for the whole nation and the whole world.
The United States, since the civil rights acts passed on the winds that blew from Bogue Chitto, has become for the first time what the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence promised it would be: a land of equality for all men and women of all races and creeds. It took way too many other deaths — especially Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. — to make equality a reality, but it finally has happened. We are the first and only major industrial, First-World nation with complete racial equality and integration in principle, law, and fact.
We are the best America we have ever been.
Now, I do not doubt that China will be a larger industrial power than the United States sometime in the next 10 years. It should be. It is at least four times as populous, with a highly motivated, disciplined student population and workforce, and ample capital.
But China is a communist dictatorship. Its people do not even have the rights that black people had in the South 60 years ago. We soon will not be the most productive nation on earth, and nothing we can do can stop that. But we are the best nation on earth because we treat each other the best, regardless of race, class, party affiliation, or connections.
We do it as individuals day by day, and we do it by laws. And the killers who buried Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner at Bogue Chitto unearthed an America every bit as great as the American dream — and it will be a long, long time before the Chinese catch up with that. And they will and should rejoice.
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