A March That Longtime Activists Still Walk

Michael Schwerner, left, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, slain in Mississippi in 1964.
Michael Schwerner, left, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, slain in Mississippi in 1964. (Associated Press)
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 2005

When civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner went missing in Philadelphia, Miss., on June 21, 1964, Lawrence Guyot Jr. was among the friends who mourned them as casualties of the effort to wrestle down Jim Crow.

And when reputed Ku Klux Klan member Edgar Ray Killen, 80, was sentenced to 60 years in prison Thursday for masterminding their deaths, Guyot was among the veteran civil rights workers who hailed the conviction as a step forward in the struggle for freedom.

"I am astoundingly proud of the state of Mississippi right now," said Guyot, 66, a Northwest Washington resident and former chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. At the time of the verdict, he was in Philadelphia, Miss., at a civil rights education conference.

"I had no doubt that this would happen, even though it took a very long time. I was at a luncheon listening a speaker who worked 45 years to desegregate the very school where we were meeting. Someone went to the microphone and announced, 'He got 60 years!' There was an explosion of shouts of 'Amen' and exclamations of joy. This was justice finally delivered."

Although many people consider the civil rights movement to be history, hundreds of movement veterans are still involved in the struggle for equal rights. After years of lunch counter sit-ins, freedom marches, protests at segregated businesses and voter registration drives, some, including Guyot, moved to the nation's capital and continue their efforts through politics, law, education and journalism.

They have closely watched developments in issues they were involved with decades ago and are celebrating recent victories in those efforts, including the Killen conviction, the FBI's reopening of the investigation into the 1955 slaying of black teenager Emmett Till and the apology two weeks ago from the U.S. Senate for never having made lynching a federal crime.

"It's been a long time coming, but change is coming," said D.C. social worker Dorie Ladner, 61, of Northwest Washington, who was with Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in Ohio when they headed to Mississippi to investigate a church bombing. She was also among a group of activists that sued the state of Mississippi when no one was held accountable for the killings.

"I can't say change has come all the way, because there has still not been a conviction in the Emmett Till case, and James Byrd was lynched in Texas in [1998], but after many years, change is coming."

Mark Planning, 44, attorney for the Committee for a Formal Apology, which lobbied the Senate for the lynching apology, said activists continue to push for justice in unresolved cases to get redress for victims unable to fight for themselves.

"In the case of the lynching victims, there was never any justice -- through the courts, through the political process, nothing," he said. "This was the one [way] we saw to obtain justice for these victims who not only had their lives destroyed, but had their families' lives destroyed for generations as well."

Committee member Janet Langhart Cohen, 64, of Chevy Chase, who worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, said she was heartened that Killen was convicted but angered that 41 years later the jury still wouldn't call him a murderer. Killen was convicted of manslaughter.

"Just because he is an old man sitting in a wheelchair with a tube down his nose does not mitigate what happened to those three civil rights workers," she said. "With us [African Americans], there is always justice denied or justice delayed. "

Martha Norman of the Baltimore area, a former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who has also been a professor of African American history, said things have not advanced as far as she would have expected.

"The overall thrust of the civil rights movement was to end oppression in the United States. The sit-ins, petitioning for the vote and those things were aspects of that larger struggle," Norman said. "We still have a long way to go. Half of our community still lives in poverty. We are still the victims of an unfair justice system and police brutality, so I don't see these things as a victory."

Guyot left Mississippi after serving as a delegate at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. A former advisory neighborhood commissioner in the District who now works at the D.C. Office of Early Childhood Development, he is a television commentator who remains an outspoken advocate for black rights. He was in Mississippi for a conference -- named for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner -- about incorporating civil rights in the state's public school curriculum.

"It was divine coincidence that we happened to be here . . . at this time."

And although he celebrates the recent developments as important advancements, he said the work continues. He frequently speaks to young people to encourage them to become involved in "civic engagement" and to pass along the true story of what has happened in civil rights.

"It is still a struggle," he said. "Getting people organized to bring about political change is as necessary today as it was in 1955, and when we don't . . . it's a civil rights issue. If we stay home and let the lesser-deserving candidate get elected, that's a civil rights issue. If we don't get the best educational facility possible for our children, that's a civil rights issue. . . . We still have work to do."


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