Today we welcome a guest post from Claire Whitlinger, author of Between Remembrance and Repair: Commemorating Racial Violence in Philadelphia, Mississippi, out now from UNC Press.
Few places are more notorious for civil rights–era violence than Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the 1964 “Mississippi Burning” murders. Yet in a striking turn of events, Philadelphia has become a beacon in Mississippi’s racial reckoning in the decades since. Claire Whitlinger investigates how this community came to acknowledge its past, offering significant insight into the social impacts of commemoration. Whitlinger expands our understanding of how commemorations both emerge out of and catalyze associated memory movements.
Between Remembrance and Repair is now available in paperback and ebook editions.
The Money in Memory: Commodifying Civil Rights Memory
Mississippi has become a tourist destination. Nearly sixty years after Jim Crow violence repelled residents and would-be visitors, the memory of the civil rights movement is drawing activists, students, and other interested citizens back to the state. In its first year, the recently-opened Mississippi Civil Rights Museum received over 250,000 visitors, far exceeding expectations.
This state-of-the-art museum, located in downtown Jackson, represents a notable change in the state’s cultural landscape. Once described by historian James Silver as the “closed society” for the state’s ill-treatment of outsiders and unwavering defense of race-based segregation, Mississippi now hosts dozens of civil rights monuments, celebrating the state’s pivotal role in the movement, including acts of racial terror that sparked the movement itself.
No community has been more central to this cultural transformation than Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Notorious as the site of the infamous 1964 “Mississippi Burning” murders where local Klansman conspired to kill civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, Philadelphia and its surrounding county (Neshoba) has long sustained a reputation as the worst of the worst in racial hatred for its white citizens’ silence, denial, and obstruction of justice surrounding the case—a reputation that endured long after the murders became memory.
Yet when I visited Mississippi for the first time in 2009, Philadelphia seemed to represent a touchstone for racial progress. Everywhere I went, people were talking about Philadelphia.
As I would later learn, Philadelphia, Mississippi had made national news just five years before when, in 2004, an interracial coalition of local citizens—the Philadelphia Coalition–organized a community-wide commemoration to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1964 murders. As I describe in my book, Between Remembrance and Repair, this commemorative event not only punctured the prevailing public silence on the murders (up until that point, commemorations of the murders had been isolated to Philadelphia’s African American communities), it altered the relationships between the coalition members, setting the stage for broader social change in Philadelphia and across the state.
Within three years, a local jury convicted Edgar Ray Killen for his role as the mastermind in the murders, the state legislature passed an education bill mandating civil and human rights education at every grade level, and a Mississippi-based civil society organization launched a statewide truth project, initially modelled after the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. All of these projects can be traced back to Philadelphia.
Emboldened by these developments, other Mississippi communities began to pursue racial reckonings of their own, hosting community dialogues, erecting historical markers, and renaming streets, although certainly not without resistance from a vocal subset of Mississippi citizens.
Despite this backlash, within a matter of years, the memory of the civil rights movement and its related violence has become a mainstay of the Mississippi landscape. Moreover, this once silenced past had become a public good, one that could be commodified in the form of charter buses and museum tickets.
Anniversaries of iconic events from the civil rights movement can mean big business. And given the cyclical nature of memory, these gatherings occur year after year.
On June 21st—the anniversary of the 1964 murders—visitors will gather at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church several miles from downtown Philadelphia to pay homage to Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman. They will also pay for meals and hotel rooms, a reality not lost on the Mississippi Development Authority, which readily promotes Mississippi’s Freedom Trail.
In 2014, Mississippi’s Tourism Director, Malcolm White, revealed the state’s stance on civil rights memory in a brief address at the National Civil Rights Conference in Meridian, Mississippi. “Mississippi’s greatest asset is our story,” he said. “Tourism is big industry. The state wants civil rights tourists just as they want golfers and blues enthusiasts.” Furthermore, he suggested, “efforts to remember the civil rights movement do three things: they tell stories, they build economic development, and they build civic pride.”
Not everyone is thrilled by this prospect. Some civil rights movement veterans won’t set foot in Mississippi’s new museum, as Pam Junior, the museum’s Executive Director, revealed in a recent conversation. They do not want their dollars going to the state of Mississippi (who financed the museum), the very institution whose defense of racial segregation engendered their activism over fifty years ago.
It would seem, then, that battles over what gets remembered have become battles over how to remember the past, and even more significantly, who is to profit from that memory.
Claire Whitlinger is assistant professor of sociology at Furman University.