PHILADELPHIA (Mississippi) - “I will never forget it,” says James Young, almost choking up as he speaks. “My father used to sleep on the couch of our living room, holding a rifle, ready to defend us.”
Young’s father was just a farmer, but his mother was a sympathizer of the civil rights movement, which meant the Ku Klux Klan repeatedly targeted their home. “Still,” he says, “here I am today, as mayor of Philadelphia. It is unbelievable even for me.”
James Young was only eight years old, when on June 21, 1964, a group of Klan members kidnapped James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights activists who had come to Philadelphia, in the most racist area of Mississippi, to register black people to vote. Chaney, a black man, was lynched. Goodman and Schwerner, two Jewish men from New York, were shot.
This heinous crime was depicted decades later in the movie Mississippi Burning. The deputy sheriff of Neshoba County, Cecil Ray Price, and Edgar Ray Killen, were behind the murders. The families of the three victims had to wait until 2005 for justice to be served: 80-year-old Killen was finally sentenced to 60 years in prison for manslaughter. He was not convicted for murder though, just for planning the murders.
Philadelphia, Mississippi has 7,477 inhabitants. According to Gallup, it is the geographic center of the most conservative state in America; in popular imagination, it is where people live with a Bible in one hand, a gun in the other.
For many in Mississippi, President Barack Obama is not hated -- he simply shouldn’t exist at all. Here 46% of the inhabitants would like to forbid interracial marriages by law. More than 50% of people define themselves as “very conservative,” don’t believe in evolution and are convinced that Obama is a Muslim.
Poverty leads to ignorance. The average income is $26,000 a year. This is part of the reason why Boston billionaire Mitt Romney didn’t win many votes in last week’s Republican primary, which was won by Rick Santorum.
A stretch of Mississippi 19 South to Philadelphia was renamed the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner Memorial Highway. A marker points to the small road in the woods were they were murdered. “We don’t want to hide our past,” says Mayor Young. “Those three kids brought hope. When they were killed we felt that we would lose everything. We were cornered, but we had to look to the future.”
Insults and stitches
In the center of Philadelphia, there is a water tank like you see in James Dean movies, shops and small wooden houses -- some shuttered with plywood on the windows. “The economic crisis hit here too,” says Young. “We survived thanks to agriculture, the lumber sector, and tax revenue from the casinos of the local Choctaw Indians.”
The mayor himself is part of the town’s history. As a child, James was the first and only black student to attend the public school. “The white kids insulted me, but I never suffered acts of violence. As you can see, I am a big guy. I was the already the biggest at school, which helped to fix many things, at least from a physical point of view,” he says.
After high school graduation, Young mopped floors at Neshoba County General Hospital, until one of his bosses suggested he attend a nursing class. “I started working in the emergency room. There, I built the base which allowed me to win the elections,” he said. In 2009, Young became the first black mayor of the town.
He won the white people’s support with stitches, deliveries, and ambulance rides, edging his opponent by 46 votes. “A week after the election, some FBI agents came to me to ask if I had been threatened. Just one letter from Kentucky, which read, ‘Where is the Ku Klux Klan when we need it?’” Young says. “The other letters were all positive, because my election showed the desire to turn the page of History.”
But work remains to be done. “Teachers of hatred still exist, and the Klan still operates, undercover. But I don’t let them intimidate me, because this is the goal of racism: convincing you that you are worth less than others, reducing you to a third-class citizen. If tomorrow someone wanted to kill me, they know where I am. But I refuse to lower my head. I only think about doing my job.”
In Meridian, 35 miles away, still lives the brother of James Chaney, the black victim of the civil rights murders. “Maybe something is changing. Killen’s conviction was a positive thing, but some of the killers are still around. My life has gone on among violence and injustice. No one will be able to pay me back.”
James Young wants to write a book about the story of his life. But he’ll do it only if President Obama is reelected. “Now, many criticize him, but they forget that a single man cannot change the world. I am also a minister in the local Pentecostal church, and I leave to God the role of God. Obama has changed the rules of the game, and if he is reelected, his victory will not be an accident.”
Larry Mill, who was working at the Trinity Baptist Church polling station for last week’s GOP primary says: “No one admits it openly, but racism is still a fact.”
A fellow polling station clerk named Sue, doesn’t disagree. She is knitting a multi-colored sweater. I try to compliment her, saying that my daughter would love that rainbow of colors. Sue doesn’t miss a second. “It’s yours,” she says, pushing it into my hand. “Keep it. Give it to your daughter. And please don’t write that we all bad people here.”
Read the original article in Italian
photo - Stephen J Corn