Leroy Clemons, president of the Neshoba County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was only two years old when three civil rights workers investigating the burning of the Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Miss., were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. He did not learn about the triple murders of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman until he was in eighth grade. Clemons has since devoted much of his life to ensuring the children of Mississippi and elsewhere learn exactly what happened during Freedom Summer, the 1964 campaign to register blacks to vote in a climate rife with violent resistance. Clemons later became co-founder and president of the Philadelphia Coalition, a multiracial taskforce formed in 2004 and charged with planning the public commemoration of and memorial to the slain civil rights workers. Clemons, who helped Mississippi develop the country’s first mandated civil rights curriculum for K-12 students, now directs community relations at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.
Liz Willen of The Hechinger Report spoke with Clemons during a recent tour of Freedom Summer sites in Mississippi. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Question: You’ve often said that education is the best lever for change, and that if you don’t know your history, you will be condemned to repeat it. Yet Mississippi’s children lag behind their peers in the rest of the United States on nearly every measure. As the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer approaches, racial division and inequities still run deep in the state, and there’s still a large achievement gap between black and white students. What can be done?
Answer: In 2006, the Philadelphia Coalition and William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation led a charge to have a law mandating that civil rights education become part of the curriculum in this state. We were concerned that it be truthful and balanced. If you bring it [Freedom Summer] up now, they’ll know about what happened. We’ve taken students on a civil rights tour, to Memphis and to Montgomery. When we talk about what happened in Philadelphia, we also talk about why it happened and what can be done to ensure that it never happens again. We talk about it as an act of ignorance.
Q: The events of Freedom Summer defined your hometown and changed your life, yet you didn’t know what happened until you were in eighth grade. How could that be?
A: I had never heard of Freedom Summer or of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman because no one had ever brought it up. In this town, people just did not talk about it. Growing up here, I was always a curious child, and I loved to ask questions, get to the root cause of things. When I learned about the murders in the eighth grade, it stoked my interest. I have always been a history buff. A teacher gave me Witness in Philadelphia [by Florence Mars] and I was fascinated. It almost seemed like I was reading about some other place, but then I realized it was happening here and that these were people that I knew. It was so fascinating to me that no one was sharing this story. I was more confused about the why, about why people didn’t talk about it. My parents told me that people just wanted to leave it alone, even though they knew it was wrong.
Q: What bothered you most about the silence? What did you do about it?
A: I just kept thinking something had to be done. It could not be business as usual in this town. We had an NAACP chapter, and I was elected president [in 2003]. After I won, people started coming to me with everything. I couldn’t understand why nothing had ever been done about the murders—why no one was convicted. [Editor’s note: it was not until 2005 that 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen, a Baptist preacher and one-time Klu Klux Klan organizer, was convicted of manslaughter by a state jury; Clemons was in the courtroom throughout the trial.]
When people started talking about Philadelphia, and introducing themselves, the theme was always the same: They felt we needed to do something about our image. It just kept coming up, but how could we say we’ve moved on and changed when we’ve never dealt with our past? It was like sweeping dirt under the rug and saying you cleaned your house. We needed to go back into our past and improve our community, and that’s how we came up with the Philadelphia Coalition and called for justice in 2004. We thought the 40th anniversary of the murders would be a great chance to show how much Philadelphia has changed, so we contacted key people and said let’s get together and make this a community-wide effort. But how could we prove we had changed when the murderers were still walking the streets?
Q: Did Killen’s 2005 manslaughter conviction do anything to ease tensions?
A: Our main focus wasn’t about prosecuting an 80-year-old man. It was about changing Neshoba County. It was about doing the right thing, about saying enough is enough, about speaking with one voice. This may sound crude, but some of these people will never change … it will take a few more funerals before we get to be where we need to be. There are still people who are determined that nothing will change in this city, state or country … they will go to the grave with their secrets and they will never tell, and a lot of it is out of fear. They don’t want to re-live those days. They have voluntary amnesia.
Q: Looking forward, what gives you hope for improvement?
A: The future is now with this next generation. They will be the ones to make the difference and end racism. In the past, we couldn’t even sit together and talk about race and what happened. But now, those conversations are being held all over the state. We now have an opportunity to learn the story without the hate. Just look back at where we were … I know we have come a long way.