The thought of Philadelphia, Miss., always sends chills up my spine.
Ronald Reagan's recent visit to that town, where he proclaimed his support for "states' rights," reminded me all too vividly of my own two journeys in the past.
The first was in 1964, when civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Philadelphia's Neshoba County for trying to register black voters. Those were the days when the Ku Klux Klan mentality held that whites had a license to kill blacks -- and the doctrine of "states' rights" prevented federal intervention to protect citizens' human rights, including the right to vote.
My second time in Philadelphia was in 1966 during the "March Aginst Fear," begun by James Meredith in the context of that year's elections in a fear-ridden state.
Meredith's contention was that someone had to prove that black people could participate in the political process -- run for office, register and vote without fear of reprisal. He was shot after marching only a short distance from the Tennessee border into Mississippi, and the nation was forced to focus on the Mississippi elections, vigilante violence and the answering cry of "Black Power!"
Thousands took up where Meredith had fallen, and Martin Luther King Jr.
said that it was hardly appropriate to m arch against fear without a stopover in Philadelphia, the place regarded by all Mississippi blacks as the bastion of white racist terror. There, local officials were intimately involved in the legacy of fear and intimidation. Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and his posse were nightriders in good standing, and a black man's life wasn't worth much once he decided to approach the courthouse with voting on his mind.
I remember Martin standing on the Neshoba County Courthouse steps in 1966, describing how the bodies of the slain civil rights workers had been found buried in a dam two years earlier. He said, "The murderers of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner are no doubt within the range of my voice." And from the white mob guarding the courthouse door, someone called out, "Ya, damn right. We're right here behind you."
Remembering that day in Mississippi, I'm obsessed with a chilling question: what "states' rights" would candidate Reagan revive? In his speech this month at the Neshoba County Fair, Reagan decared that he believed in "states' rights," and as president would do everything he could to reorder priorities to "restore to states and local governments the powers that properly belong to them."
Traditionally, these code words have been the electoral language of Wallace, Goldwater and the Nixon southern strategy. So one must ask: Is Reagan saying that he intends to do everything he can to turn the clock back to the Mississippi justice of 1964? Do the powers of the state and local governments include the right to end the voting rights of black citizens? Would Reagan dare to commission, directly or indirectly, the Sheriff Raineys and the vigilantes to ride once again, poisoning the political process with hatred and violence?
Over the past year, we have seen attacks on black leaders. Many in the black community are convinced that the shooting of Vernon Jordan was part of a conspiracy to incite violence and thereby contribute to furthering the country's move to the right. Now comes Reagan's symbolic visit to Mississippi, coupled with a recent Klan endorsement of the Republican platform. Bill Wilkinson, imperial wizard of the "Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan" -- regarded as the largest Klan organization in the country -- wrote in his group's newspaper that they endorsed Reagan and that the Republican platform "reads as if it were written by a Klansman."
All of this prompts me to pose this question to the Urban League's John Jacobs: do you really believe the black vote is up for grabs this year?
Surely black memories are not that short. Despite the terrorism of the '60s, the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, leading to the enfranchisment of millions of voters and the election of thousands of black public officials. But this was paid for with blood of those three civil rights workers in Mississippi; of James Reeb, a Unitarian minister; of Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife; of Jimmy Lee Jackson, Father Jonathan Daniels and hundred of even thousands of others over the years.
Now many people believe that social justice, civil and human rights have been achieved and that those who would kill and terrorize blacks will no longer be tolerated in the United States. Yet the nightriders are still out there, waiting for the day when federal protection of voting rights and civil rights is withdrawn.
That is why code words like "states' rights" and symbolic places like Philadelphia, Miss., leave me cold.