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Students, teacher ‘carry burden’ for slain civil rights workers

 


Students, teacher ‘carry burden’ for slain civil rights workers

March 9, 2005

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

In 1964, three young civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi.

In 2005, three young women and a history teacher in Illinois have become part of a movement that may finally see justice in the 40 year-old cases.

Sarah Siegel, Allison Nichols and Brittany Saltiel, 16-year-old sophomores at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., took on the famous “Mississippi Burning” case as a history project. Their teacher, Barry Bradford, has been at their sides as they have interviewed family members of the slain workers—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. Bradford conducted a rare interview with the man who will stand trial for their murders on April 18—reputed Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen.

“We have a very complex set of emotions occurring now,” Bradford says. “On the one hand, the students and I are very pleased to have been a part of bringing justice to this case. On the other hand we certainly cannot be elated because for our work to take place, three really good young men had to die; three families had to suffer for 40 years.”

In January, a Neshoba County grand jury indicted Killen for the murders. The three young men were killed on a farm near Philadelphia, Miss., in June 1964, and their bodies were found the following August, buried in an earthen dam. Seven Klansmen were convicted in 1967 of the crimes and eight were acquitted, but the jury couldn’t reach a verdict in three cases—including Killen’s.

Bradford, a member of Christ United Methodist Church in Deerfield, Ill., says his faith has motivated him throughout the unfolding drama. On his desk is a Bible verse-- Galatians 6:2-- “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” That verse is a daily reminder that he is called to work for justice for the three slain young men.

“Obviously, we are called as Christians to work to bring the justice in the world,” he says. “The way I have always put it is in 1964, three brave idealists were murdered for seeking justice, and 40 years later, three idealists came along and said, ‘We are going to pick up your burden, we are going to carry on for you.’”

The students helped draft a resolution calling on the federal government to reopen the case. They and Bradford are being lauded for publicizing the murders. Earlier this year Mark Kirk, congressman from Illinois, and others honored their efforts on the floor of Congress.

“I realized how important our project was when we were sitting in Congressman John Lewis’ office and he complimented us on our work,” Saltiel says. “If a congressman approved of it, we knew we could make a difference from there.” Lewis marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights workers during the 1960s.

Bradford explains that it was the burning of a United Methodist church—Mt. Zion—that brought the three civil rights workers to Mississippi.

“Mt Zion was burned because the brave people of that United Methodist church had voted to allow the church to be used as a Freedom School to train people to get the right to vote,” Bradford says.

“I see a spiritual connection between Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Mississippi and Christ United Methodist Church in Deerfield, Ill., in that my church has been praying with us so much—they have been faithful witnesses to it all.”

“It is so easy to admire Barry for what he is doing, for how central his faith has been in the midst of this and how passionate he feels about all this,” says the Rev. Christian Coon, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church. “It is inspiring for me and others because so often in the church we speak about justice and lift up the prophets, but to see somebody actually doing it is helping the church to look at itself more closely and realize that we can do something more than just talk about justice. Barry is a great example of that.”

Bradford conducted the interview with Killen because the Justice Department wasn’t comfortable with high school students doing the interview.

“It was a very odd conversation for many reasons,” he says. “It was difficult emotionally because we have grown so close to the families of the young men who were murdered. We feel like we are members of their extended family.”

In the interview, Bradford says Killen told him that white people were angry because they thought the men had come to Mississippi to convert people to communists. “His ideas are clearly far outside the mainstream.”

Killen is an ordained Baptist minister and is commonly referred to as “Preacher Killen,” Bradford says. “It was difficult for me to address him as ‘Rev.’ because he shows no remorse. Your average high school teacher doesn’t talk to people accused of murder.”

Bradford helped the students select the topic for their project. “I sort of opened the door and got out of the way,” he says.

“Mr. Bradford is an amazing teacher because he doesn’t just teach history; he helps his students to become a part of it,” Nichols says. “We don’t view the civil rights era as just a chapter in our U.S. history book. It is something that is ongoing and directly affects us, and because of this, we want to be a part of it.”

Siegel adds, “One of the most important things I’ve learned from this process is that anyone can get involved in anything they think is important. Any help is greatly appreciated. This matter is not one concerning a particular faith, race or religion. I was inspired to do this work because of the values I have been taught.” 

Nichols says her faith has helped carry her through all that has happened.

“I have never met Mickey, Andy or J.E., but after listening to so many people who did know them and who survived their work during the civil rights movement, I think it is impossible not to feel some sort of connection,” she says. “It would be so easy to allow myself to hate the people responsible for their deaths, but I don’t want to be burdened with that hatred for the rest of my life. Instead, I choose to honor their memories and fight for their ideals.”

The students produced a documentary, wrote a congressional resolution and then lobbied Congress to get it passed. Bradford says he is not sure where the resolution stands now that Killen has been indicted.

“If you think about that, it is pretty remarkable for three 16-year-olds to stand up at a Congressional breakfast, to stand up in front of Jesse Jackson Jr. and all kinds of different folks, and say, ‘Hey look, you need to be doing more here.’

“Each step of the way they have kept faith with the process,” he says. “I think the most significant reaction they have gotten is the families have been very grateful to the students.”

Caroline Goodman, the mother of Andrew Goodman, speaks highly of the three students, calling them “super heroes.” Bradford says she told him, “When I look at your students, I am seeing Andy. Their compassion, their drive is the same as his, and it gives me hope for the future.’”

Bradford and his students feel like a part of history. He says the day Killen was indicted was a phenomenal day for all of them. “But there is still much to be done,” he adds.
Others involved in the murders need to be brought to justice, he says.

“We are a small part of a large movement. We do not get credit for reopening this case; a lot of people—certainly the families—have been working on it for 40 years. But one of the things that our faith as Christians tells us is from small things great things come.”

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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