We met up with our tour guide for the day: Leroy Clemons, a racial equity trainer, and the executive director of the Neshoba County Youth Coalition.
We started our tour in front of a church where there was a marker commemorating the three civil rights workers who were lynched in 1964 when Leroy was just two years old: Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman.
Standing there, he talked about growing up on the Black side of the tracks in a safe, warm community, and never being afraid, and he told us how all 39 members of the police force were members of the Klan when he was growing up. No one mentioned the lynchings of the civil rights workers when he was a child— it was too painful for the adults, he said — so he learned about it on his own when he was in the 8th grade. One of his teachers recommended a book to him and, reading the story, he’d recognized his town and pieced things together.
photo credit: a group member
He talked about how, back in the early 2000s, Neshoba County had national record-high teen pregnancy numbers and how, through the formation of the youth coalition, they’ve dramatically slashed the numbers.
“But how?” we asked.
“We don’t talk about abstinence-only or safe sex or STDs or birth control, none of that,” Leroy said. “What we do do, is teach critical thinking skills: How’s it gonna feel when you have to tell your wife that half your paycheck goes to support another woman? What are you gonna do when you can’t get a job because you have a whole string of little ones to care for? Everyone makes mistakes, but the more mistakes you make, the harder they are to fix. But we tell our youth that if your mistake hasn’t killed you, then we can help fix it.”
“But lots of times girls find themselves in bad situations that they didn’t have much choice about in the first place,” someone pointed out. “How do you support girls who are dealing with things that are beyond their control?”
“Our motto is: once a member of the Neshoba Youth Coalition, always a member,” Leroy said, “and if someone wants to get out, we help them find a way. For girls who are in bad relationships, we ask them why they need that person? What are they getting from that relationship? Once they can think critically about their choices, they can begin to make changes.”
He drove us though the business district on the Black part of town, pointing out all the stairs leading up from the road to now-empty lots where houses once had been. He pointed out the last diner on that side of town — I think he said it’d just gone out of business a week earlier. At the end of the street was the newly-integrated elementary school he’d attended. One of the little girls he played with — he even went to her house to play, and was treated well there by her family, he said — was the daughter of one of the Klansmen involved in the boys’ lynching.
“I never knew anything about what had happened, so I didn’t know to be afraid at school,” Leroy said. “The teachers may have said things, but it just went right over my head.”
“But your parents,” I said, “weren’t they scared?”
“Yes, terrified, though I didn’t know it at the time. I remember they asked me so many questions. I know now they were checking to find out if I was being mistreated, but back then I just thought they wanted to hear about my day.”
photo credit: Rose Shenk
Standing in the shade of an abandoned gas station where I watched a four-wheeler speed down the street in front of us and run the stop sign, Leroy told us that years after the movement, civil rights workers returned to Philadelphia to apologize. “We made a mistake,” they said. “We asked for equality when what we should’ve asked for was equity.”
It struck me then (and at other times during the trip) how the civil rights movement was far from perfect. People didn’t know what they were doing. They messed up, misjudged, and asked for the wrong thing. Demanding change and making justice: these things are messy and imperfect. People betray each other and change their minds and give up. People lose their jobs, their homes, their lives. Looking back, the movement appears so linear and organized, almost like it was predestined, but it was anything but.
He told us the story of the reopened murder trial 40 years after the event. Leroy and one of his white friends had decided to plan a commemoration of the civil rights murders, so they called a town meeting. “How do we remember this together?” they asked the people gathered.
“How about we hold a march?” one of the Black people suggested, and all the Blacks in the room nodded along. And then one of the white people said, “Or we could sign a declaration saying that this will never happen again,” and the Black fell silent and the white people nodded along. No decision was made that night, and after the meeting, Lero went to his white co-leader and asked, “Why didn’t you white people like the idea of a march?”
“Do you know what a march means to white people?” his friend said. “It means y’all are mad and you’re coming for us and there’s gonna be riots and looting! And what was so bad about signing a declaration anyway?”
“Do you know what a declaration means to Black people?” Leroy countered. “Absolutely nothing! White people have been signing, and breaking, declarations since forever. Words on a piece of paper don’t mean anything to us!”
So they called a second meeting. This time, there was no commemoration-planning agenda. Rather, the goal was to let the townspeople, both Black and white, tell their stories of what it was like growing up in Philadelphia. As people talked, the whites began to learn that Blacks weren’t angry at them — they didn’t want to fight them or get back at them, and the Blacks had lots of stories of the white people who had helped them — and the Blacks began to learn all the ways in which the whites had also been terrorized by Klan.
The town meetings continued, the group eventually became The Philadelphia Coalition, and this group, along with some other events and key people, like the work of investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell, led to the reopening of the civil rights workers’ murder case. Forty-one years to the day after the lynchings, the Klansman who’d organized the murders was convicted. Leroy, who was very involved in that case, appears a number of times in the documentary (which we watched that evening as a group).
Leroy told us that Mr. Killen, the Klansman who’d organized the killings and then been convicted four decades later, had said he wanted the boys to be lynched right along the road close to his house so he could pass the place every day and remember it.
“We’ll go to that spot,” Leroy told us, “but we won’t stay long. I don’t like to tempt fate” — a statement which confused me until he explained that lots of Klansmen are from that area and live around there. (And then later our group leader shared that on one of her first tours with Leroy back in 2018 or so, Leroy had told the group, “If you see me start to run, run with me,” and only then did I begin to get an inkling of the risk he was taking.)
Before we went to the murder site, Leroy took us out into the country to Mt. Zion Baptist, the church that had been burned prior to the civil rights workers’ murders. Standing in the yard of the church, Leroy walked us through the series of events that led up to the murders.
photo credit: a group member
Because Schwerner, one the civil rights workers, had spent some time working at that church, the Klan was on the lookout for him. One evening, there was a church meeting and a neighboring Black man noticed a strange Black man walking back and forth outside the church and, assuming the strange man was a guard and that Schwerner was inside, he tipped off the Klan. (Schwerner wasn’t inside — he’d left the area — and the strange man was just an out-of-towner who’d come for his daughter’s birthday and was waiting for the meeting to wrap up inside.) The Klan assembled, put up road blocks, severely beat some of the church people, and burned the church. When Schwerner returned to Mississippi not long after, he went to visit the burned church, along with Chaney and Goodman, and on their way back to Meridian, they were apprehended and killed.
That’s the briefest of summaries, the best I can remember, but the version we got from Leroy was convoluted and nuanced. Like, for example, how the Black man who tipped off the Klan was a member of Mt. Zion Baptist, and how he remained an active member there for the rest of his life. Like, how certain details of the story came from children of Klansmen, and their memory of events. Like how the grandchildren of some of the Klansmen have married Black people.
The more Leroy talked, the more complicated the story became. There was nothing linear or clear-cut about this history, and listening to him, I felt the weight of that — heavy, unwieldy, and murky.
photo credit: a group member
Leroy then took us to the spot where the boys were murdered. We clustered on the edge of the country road while Leroy stood on the pine needles at the side of the road and recounted the details of the lynchings, details that were still being pieced together: The car chase. The shootings. The broken bones. The dismembering of one of the bodies. The last young man running and getting shot down, playing dead, and then being buried alive. The mundane details of coordinating a middle-of-the-night mass burial. The search for the bodies, and the discovery of more than a half dozen other lynched Black bodies in the process.
He gestured down the road to his left, telling of the Klansmen who lived back that way. “Killen’s brother lived down there,” he said, “and in the documentary you’re gonna watch, he’s the one sitting in a recliner with a rifle on the table beside him. He died in that same chair last year, and no one found him for so long that his body had begun to decompose.” Leroy paused, and then he said, almost gently, “He died alone. Such a terrible death.”
As we were leaving the site, my younger daughter asked about the blood. Wouldn’t that have been a giveaway?
“Killen came back the next morning,” Leroy said, “and cleaned up the area, as well as the chains and guns which he then returned to police headquarters.”
P.S. In a 2013 Hechinger Report interview, Leroy says, Our main focus wasn’t about prosecuting an 80-year-old man. It was about changing Neshoba County. It was about doing the right thing, about saying enough is enough, about speaking with one voice. This may sound crude, but some of these people will never change … it will take a few more funerals before we get to be where we need to be. There are still people who are determined that nothing will change in this city, state or country … they will go to the grave with their secrets and they will never tell, and a lot of it is out of fear. They don’t want to re-live those days. They have voluntary amnesia.