Clinic Stories

Neshoba County (Third and Final Part)

Philadelphia, MS is infamous for the murder of three civil rights volunteers in 1964, dramatized in the movie “Mississippi Burning” staring Gene Hackman. After being arrested and jailed, they were released at night, followed out of town by the sheriff’s department and shot by klansman. When the killers, including the sheriff, were acquitted, the federal government convicted them of civil rights violations and they served light sentences.

While visiting chicken farms south of Philadelphia, I was taken on a side trip to see the church where the murders were planned. At the end of a red dirt road an old wooden Baptist church rose above the weeds. Prayers had not been offered from the pews in decades. The windows were built without glass, consisting of framed openings in clapboard with shutters. There was no lock on the door. An old piano among the dust and cob webs was worthy of a concert by Lerch. It was an ideal location for local klan meetings. A mix of awe, revulsion and fear made it difficult to know whether to stay or leave.

When we left the church, another car had pulled up. Two women asked if we knew where the cemetery was. Following a crude map, we found a modest graveyard near the church. Most of the graves were marked only with a stone, and those with inscriptions ranged from the mid 1860’s to the late 1890’s. In September 1872 about 15 children had been buried in marked graves, one family losing three children ages three to six in two weeks. The unmarked graves likely held others. One of our group was able to say what had happened. His church in Selma, AL had a cluster of child deaths that month as well. As Civil War survivors struggled to rebuild their lives, scarlet fever decimated countless families adding unimaginable grief to already torn lives.

This simple church bore witness to war and pestilence, then one hundred years later incubated a notorious crime. The nineteenth century founders could never have dreamed that so much history would travel down their dirt road.

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