Mississippi’s former Democratic Secretary of State Dick Molpus, born and raised in Neshoba County, stood up 25 years ago at the Mount Zion Church in his hometown of Philadelphia and officially apologized to the families of the three slain civil rights workers murdered when they came to help blacks register to vote.
Molpus said the terrible secrets his hometown harbored after the killings catalyzed his decision to become a public official and education activist. Molpus is among those who will be honored at the church during a 50th anniversary commemoration on June 15.
The Hechinger Report spoke to Molpus about his historic apology and the need to improve education in Mississippi.
Q. You were just 14 when the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were found in a remote earthen dam in your town. What was your understanding at the time of what happened, and how did you handle it?
A. I was pretty much focused on whether the cutest girl in my English class would go with me to a movie. I had coke-bottle glasses and Brylcreem hair. And I consider myself fortunate to have been at the ground level of one of the most horrific and most transformative part of the fight for equal rights in this country. I knew who the killers were, I knew [sawmill operator] Edgar Ray Killen. Philadelphia is a very small town. Looking back, it was a jarring experience with a profound impact on the person I became. I remembers the screaming, the vitriol….I can see the fires, smell the kerosene, see the white hoods of the Klu Klux Klan. It may sound simplistic, but I decided I would never again be a part of a group that bullied another group of people.
Q. Were the murders addressed in your school?
A. We were told that the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan were stand up Americans. The greatest emotion running through the town was fear. These murderers were terrorists and succeeded in spreading terror. In the white community, everyone shut up. The Citizens Council was putting economic pressure on people not to speak; the Klan would use violence as a means of controlling the situation. I remember the fear and pressure to conform. Instead of the murder in our midst, the big discussion was how our little town was being mistreated and how we were being portrayed as uncouth, uneducated rednecks. So the sense was, let’s bind together and push away outside forces, be it the FBI or the president or the national media; they are here to make us look bad. I rarely or never heard the discussion that what happened here was wrong.
Q. Why did you think the town owed an apology to the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner? What was the reaction afterward?
Philadelphia is my hometown. And as a statewide elected official, I could speak on behalf of our state. I thought about it, and I realized if it [an apology] was going to be done and done properly, I was going to have to do it. A staffer said it was an effort to whack off every white voter in the state [Molpus lost the election for governor to Rep. Kirk Fordice in 1995] but as I look back on my career, that moment took me to a new place. I received a host of letters saying I would be assassinated. I had to have security guards for a year. But that didn’t bother me, it comes with the territory. There were a lot of bitter people but it was the most reaffirming thing I’ve ever done. There will always a handful of folks who wish they could turn the clock back to Jim Crow days, but that is no longer a majority by a long shot. And there were two redemptive acts. The arrest and prosecution of [Klan leader] Edgar Ray Killen [he was convicted of the killings in 2005] was a redemptive act for Philadelphia. We also now have an African American mayor; James Young. These are two clear examples that the community has changed for the better. It’s jam packed with kind, loving people.
Q. How did the events of Freedom Summer shape your views of education in the state? Did your decision to get involved in public education stem at all from the horrifying events that happened in your hometown?
Lessons from Freedom Summer
This story is part of our ongoing look at Freedom Summer. Here are some of our other recent stories:
Public schools have always been the great equalizer; the place where you could use your own initiative to succeed. But all around the state, [after the murders] that wasn’t happening. After the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, the real issue was, are we going to educate everyone? Will we give blacks a chance to live a productive life? We were rapidly developing a two-tier state, one for the haves, with enough money to attend elite private schools, vs. those that don’t have that opportunity and are sent to inferior public schools. And that is flat out, black and white wrong. Every child deserves the opportunity to succeed. It’s even more critical in our state. If we don’t break the cycle of poverty in this state and fund better schools, we will forever be tied to dead last.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.