Fundamentally, Neshoba County is Choctaw land. These days, the main visible reminder of that, for a passing visitor, is the Pearl River Resort, a gaming complex whose two casino hotels face one another: the low, drab Silver Star is connected by a walkway over Highway 16 to the dramatically-upswept Golden Moon, with its bulbous cantilevered sphere at the summit that lights up bright amber at night.
If you drive five miles east from the Pearl River Resort, you emerge from the reservation and come into Philadelphia, the county seat, estimated population 7,361, a number that has remained essentially flat for decades. By way of invitation, the development authority offers, on its website, the usual desultory cheer. “A charming town square surrounded by quaint shops and friendly citizens makes Neshoba County a great place to visit and live.”
Every summer, tens of thousands of (white) Mississippians converge on the Neshoba County Fair, a jamboree where the upper crust set up in a village of six hundred two-story “cabins” that families hand down over generations, and the less-washed park campers, and novices disperse to hotels beyond the fairgrounds. The fair is, among other things, a political institution, unmissable for any statewide candidate keen on Mississippi’s white and Republican votes. It’s where Ronald Reagan launched his general election campaign, after winning the presidential nomination in 1980.
Through the porous crust of chamber-of-commerce platitudes seeps haunted information. This right here is the Mississippi of Mississippi Burning. Here is where they burned down Mount Zion Methodist Church, in June of 1964. Here is where they ambushed and killed the civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, who came to investigate the church burning a few days later. Here is where a small overdue measure of justice arrived in 2005, when Edgar Ray Killen, erstwhile chief recruiter of the Neshoba Ku Klux Klan, received three twenty-year sentences for manslaughter. An ambiguous outcome, it was redemptive at small scale, but far short of an accounting. Enough—there always seems to be enough—to power that common alchemy that transmutes decades of active avoidance into calls to let go and move on.
I didn’t plan to come on pilgrimage. I’m in Mississippi on a different project, but when you spend time in Mississippi you meet people, and when you meet people they take you places. And then one Sunday you’re visiting on a farm at the edge of Philadelphia, eating too much, and you begin learning a family history with deep roots in the Longdale community, where Black farmers made their homes in the gentle hollow of County Road 747, Mount Zion right near midpoint, where they continue to worship in the rebuilt sanctuary and to inter the dead in the unfenced burial ground.
Here, for instance, is J.R. “Bud” Cole (1904-1996), beside his wife Beatrice. On the Tuesday evening when the Klan came to the church, intercepting the finance committee members as they came out of their meeting, they were looking for Schwerner—“Goatee,” they called him, or “the Jew”—who, from the movement’s base in Meridian, Mississippi, was helping to organize in Philadelphia. Schwerner wasn’t there, but the Klansmen beat Mr. Cole badly as his wife wailed in prayer. That night, they returned to burn the church. Mr. Cole suffered permanent damage from the blows to his back and would require thereafter a cane and brace. But he survived, and led a long life.
Next to the church and up a grassy slope across the street, old buildings marked as a Masonic lodge and the Longdale community center attest to this place’s social history. We stop to pick up an elderly aunt, well into her eighties, diminutive, and gloriously loud. “Everyone’s favorite,” they tell me. She came back to Longdale after some five decades in Detroit. She doesn’t know why she waited so long to return. She’s thrilled to tool around and offer commentary.
Downtown Philadelphia is not nearly as quaint as the boosters insist. It lacks the courthouse-square charm or the boutique row fronted by angle parking that you find in the more resilient of these Southern small towns. Mostly it’s empty. A big water tower marked with the city’s name looms over desolate brick buildings. Back in the day, the town was prosperous, the county poor. The Philadelphia High School students looked down on Neshoba County High. Today it’s reversed, along with the demographics. The town itself is majority Black. The county is two-thirds white.
The former county jail sits on Myrtle Street, a narrow strip downtown. This is where they held Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner for seven hours on June 21, 1964, after the police pulled them over—though in the account I’m given, they had stopped to fix a flat tire—and booked them, ostensibly for speeding. That night, released on bail, the men would drive into the ambush on their way out of town, on Highway 19.
The old jail is minuscule: a low box of a building. Apparently, it served a while as the local Knights of Columbus meeting house. Now, it seems to be . . . apartments? There are two doorways, a small satellite dish, a blue cookout grill, a tenants-only sign by the parking bays. There’s also a big engraved historical marker that one would have to pass to enter. No one is around. We move on.
“Did he tell you they cut their penises out?” the aunt asks from the back seat, loud and matter-of-fact. She wants to know how much of the story her nephew gave us, back at the farm. We roll on in silence. There is no settled record of what happened on Rock Cut Road, how each of the three died, but it wasn’t the efficient ending you might infer from the sign at the corner of Highway 19, which simply says they “were murdered near here.” The Klansmen castrated at least Chaney—the Black man—my host tells me. They shot Goodman in the back; he may have been alive when they buried him.
The place itself is just a bit off the highway, at the junction of 515 and 284. A clearing where one lane through the woods empties into another. Pine needles, gravel. An off-kilter stop sign. Another friend, who grew up in the area, later sees my photographs and says it doesn’t feel quite right—the precise site may be some further short distance away. Or not.
At any rate, we see a cluster of small stones, deliberately placed, at the location where our host takes us. People put them here to honor the dead, in the Jewish manner.
That night, the Klansmen loaded up the bodies and drove off to dispose of them. An intense search ordered by President Johnson, through woodlands and marshes, failed to turn them up, until a paid informant revealed they were buried in an earthen dam on private property, in swampland on the way toward the county fair grounds. The map in the Neshoba County African American Heritage Driving Tour brochure indicates the general area but cautions, in bold letters, that it is private land with no trespassing allowed.
We return to the farm. There is visiting to do. In one home, an aunt and uncle are serving steaks and ice cream. They travel back and forth from Detroit these days; the others hope they’ll come back for good. Narratives of return are common here. Mississippi is what it is, but it’s their place. We go feed the goats, the chickens, the guinea fowl. Two horses are grazing quietly on one stretch of land, a bunch of cattle a bit further away. We collect the day’s eggs. They’re not for sale—this isn’t a commercial operation, more a soul practice. The extra eggs will go to people at church.
Everyone’s on a porch, the ritual of goodbyes having somehow resulted in a general reconvening. But the drive back to Jackson awaits. It’s too late to take the beautiful Natchez Trace—too dark and isolated, and you might hit deer. So we’ll settle for the main road. The dogs trot with us to the car, always curious. Their humans wave from the porch. “Come back and see us. You’re part of the family now.” And you are.