Julia Longoria: Just a heads-up: Today’s episode contains a graphic description of violence.
(Chimes in the void, quiet, low. After a moment, they fade away to nothing.)
Kid: (Singing lightly.) Da-da-da-dan-dan. We’re on our way to the church. (A car indicator noise beeps as the child’s narration fades under.)
Longoria: This week, we start things off with a trip to church—with some Sunday-school kids and our guide.
Ko Bragg: It’s recording. (Fades under.)
Longoria: Ko Bragg, freelance reporter for The Atlantic.
Kid: Yes, ma’am.
Bragg: So don’t push no buttons.
Kid: We’re heading to Mt. Zion to worship the Lord. (A brief beat, and then a bright, giddy child’s laugh.)
(Underneath the narration, the quiet road noise from the inside of a car.)
Longoria: Mt. Zion United Methodist Church is a fixture in the African American community in Philadelphia. Not the Philadelphia in Pennsylvania—the small, small town of Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Bragg: There’s a little marker off Highway 16.
Once you get down Road 747, Mt. Zion is—kind of sits, to me—up on a hill.
My mom married my stepdad at this church, and that’s the church my stepdad grew up going to. And so I’ve always been thinking about this church.
Longoria: This church is famous in American history.
Kid: (The microphone bumps against something and makes a mechanical sound, electronic displeasure about the contact.) Ooh, it’s raining!
Bragg: After you get out of the gravel driveway, there’s a little walkway. It’s not a grand entrance. It’s a very quaint, simple southern brick church.
Kid: (Singing.) We’re in the church. We’re in the church. We’re at the church!
(The church choir comes in, singing loudly over a buoyant piano line and the simple percussion of hands clapping and a tambourine shaking in a one-two beat. The audience—or the harmony, perhaps—chimes in at intervals with interjections: “Oh, Lord!”)
Bragg: And there’s these wooden pews, um, throughout. There’s these stained-glass windows.
(The music breaks into a harmony. The choir sings each chord with gusto.)
Bragg: So in Mt. Zion’s fellowship hall, there are these framed newspaper clippings that archive the civil-rights crime that happened here in 1964.
(Slowly, the strains of the choir’s song are pulled lower and lower, quieter and quieter, until they cannot be heard anymore.)
(A solemn keyboard line plays with gravitas.)
Longoria: In June of 1964, at the height of the civil-rights movement, during what became known as Freedom Summer, the Ku Klux Klan burned Mt. Zion to the ground.
Radio announcer: The FBI announced the finding of three bodies in graves at the sight of a dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Longoria: And murdered three civil-rights workers in cold blood.
Martin Luther King Jr.: The finding of the bodies of the three Mississippi civil-rights workers is a saddening and shocking reminder of the brutality of race hatred.
Longoria: It was one of the most notorious crimes of the civil-rights era, and helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Ed Herlihy: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is signed at the White House by President Johnson. President Johnson calls for all Americans to back what he calls “a turning point in history.”
Longoria: Years later, it was made into a Hollywood blockbuster: Mississippi Burning, starring Gene Hackman and Frances McDormand.
- Lee Ermey, as Mayor Tilman: (From the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning, over the chatter of a crowd and the singing of spirituals.) Rest of America don’t mean a damn thing. You in Mississippi now. (The sound of an explosion resonates.)
(The music dissolves.)
Bragg: But today, if you pass through the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, you wouldn’t even know this crime happened.
Longoria: To this day, it’s easier to spot a Confederate monument in Philadelphia than any mention of the crime or the town’s role in Freedom Summer. So Ko went down to the local historical museum to see how they dealt with it.
Bragg: And there was like an older white woman there, and she asked me if I wanted a tour, and I was like, “Yeah, I want a tour!” There’s these diagrams of what the town would have looked like. And then you go into another room, and there’s, like, a diorama of a living room with, like, what white women would have been wearing to dinner at the time. And that’s pretty much it.
So we get back downstairs, and I’m like, “Did I miss something? Or where’s the stuff about Mt. Zion?” And it was just quiet. Eventually the guide was kind of like, “Well, this is about the before times. Like, before civil rights. Before … all the conflict.”
And I was like, Okay! It’s clear that they don’t want to engage with that history.
And that’s what’s wild about when you come here; there is nothing. And when you ask people about it, you feel gaslit. Like, Am I—am I tripping? Like … [Longoria exhales a laugh, then stifles it.] “Do y’all really not have anything about Freedom Summer, 1964, in a historical museum?”
But there is an unofficial network of Black tour guides who lived this history. But they’re kind of off the grid, and you have to know who to ask to get connected to them.
Obbie Riley: Truth is uncomfortable. Sun—the sun burns when you have to stand in it, but it cleanses.
(A trilling string flourish plays. It cues a soft orchestra that’s interpellated by a persistent, unforgiving, electronic beat.)
Longoria: The town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, is famous for a crime that you might have learned about in school. A crime that the state of Mississippi [A breath.] was complicit in. A horrific crime that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to town, that shocked the nation.
But it’s a crime that, in 2022, some people who live there still refuse to talk about.
This week, reporter Ko Bragg talks to one of the few people who insist on talking about it in a town that would rather forget.
I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(An electric arpeggio picks up the pace, bringing the tempo up. A heart races. Then, gently, the music fades out with a breeze or the sound of a car passing on a distant highway.)
Riley: Well, it’s a beautiful, beautiful day for this time of the year in Mississippi.
Bragg: So if you were coming to Philadelphia and you wanted to learn about the history here, one of the people you’d likely get connected to is Obbie Riley.
Riley: I live in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Uh, this is where I were born and grew up.
Bragg: I’m going to go back and ask you this. Who are you to me?
Riley: I am—I am your dad!
Bragg: If I’m in the grocery store or something, and someone’s like, “Who are you kin to?” or whatever. My answer is usually like, “You probably know Obbie Riley?” And they’re like, “Yeah!” I’m like, “That’s my stepdad.”
He’s certainly the fixture. And most people know him.
He’s also a Coast Guard veteran who was elected as a county supervisor, which means he gets calls for everything, from people whose cats go missing to, like, a sewer break, to a road that needs fixing.
Riley: And so I’m a person that is really and truly blessed to be able to just take advantage of the many opportunities to try and make this place that we live a little better place.
Bragg: Obbie believes that if Philadelphia is ever going to truly be a better place, then it has to reckon with its past.
And one of the ways to face the past head-on is through these tours that Obbie and a cohort of unofficial tour guides who are connected to Mt. Zion show tourists and students what happened during Freedom Summer 1964, in the place that it happened, from the perspective of people who lived it.
Riley: It’s important to, uh, mark those hallowed grounds and—and just share it with as many people as you can, since there is not a big [A breath and a beat.] movement to preserve it.
Longoria: Where does he take you on the tour?
(The sound of a garage door creaking open, and then a car door slamming open.)
Bragg: Yeah. So, I mean, we start in our driveway.
Bragg: Which truck?
Riley: We’re going to take the Dodge.
Bragg: Which is on the way to Mt. Zion.
Riley: (Over driving noises.) This is the area that I grew up, now.
Bragg: We take Road 747, which goes right through Longdale, which is historically a Black, land-owning community, and to this day is still very much filled with Black families who live on either lots of acres or in mobile homes but who all know each other.
Riley: (Still driving.) This area right here was, uh—was the school—the Black school was located in this area here. The old Longdale school built in 1949. That’s my mom’s house.
Bragg: And then we pull into the church’s gravel driveway.
Riley: And this is the church and the, uh, fellowship hall. The church was a wood church. It was a wood plank church, so …
(A pillowy dreamscape emerges underneath the narration: a keyboard in an empty room at sunset.)
Riley: Growing up there, I can remember, uh, you know, the noises that the preacher made when he was getting into his rhythm and, you know—and sometimes they snort and stomp, and me and my friends, we could barely contain ourselves. All those things was just so funny to us.
(A street organ pipes out a few notes. Then a choir sings—a cappella—of freedom, bolstered by the steady rhythm of dozens of hands clapping.)
Longoria: In 1964, when Obbie was only 2 years old, Mt. Zion became designated as a Freedom School: a place to organize the Black community around one of the biggest causes of the civil-rights movement.
CBS’s Bill Plante: They called it Freedom Summer 1964, a drive to register Blacks long denied the right to vote.
(Gradually, a tremolo builds under the group’s anthem. As they end their song, the looping notes create a soft bed of sound for the narration, with a quavering string line entering at intervals to add to the tension.)
Longoria: Southern states were using poll taxes and literacy tests to suppress the Black vote. Less than 10 percent of eligible Black voters in Mississippi were registered. So Black churches like Mt. Zion were at the center of an effort to register more and more Black people.
Riley: The big thing was, it’s just the pure fact of trying to register citizens that was qualified to—to participate in the, uh, American dream, you know?
Bragg: So, on June 16, a bunch of Mt. Zion church members were gathered there to handle some church business.
Riley: Ms. Georgia Rush and her son was, um, was there that day. Mr. Bud Cole and Ms. Beatrice Cole—we called her Cousin Beatie—was there.
Bragg: So the KKK knew that Mt. Zion had been designated as part of Freedom Summer. And so they knew that there was this meeting happening at the church, and they had thought that there were these organizers there. But really it was just your regular Mt. Zion church folks.
Riley: By the time the meeting was over, the Klan had—had gathered and they had people at the north and the south end of the driveway of the church. These men were, uh, hooded and—and their faces were, um, totally un-visible.
They commenced to beat Ms. Georgia Rush’s son, and her, and they brutally beat them, really pretty bad.
And they started to beat Mr. Bud Cole. And they beat him so fiercely and so hard that Beatrice said she thought that they were gonna kill him.
And she done all she could. She screamed and asked and begged and pleaded, and she recited them, um, a message—a passage. And it’s, uh, something to the fact of “Oh Lord, if you deny me and I throw my hands up to thee, no other help do I know,” and she just screamed it at the top of her lungs. And they says, “Oh,” just, “That’s enough.” And they—and they spared him his life.
(The piano and strings fade away, leaving only the narration.)
Riley: My grandfather said that about that time, he lived about halfway between my mom’s house and the church.
Bragg: Obbie’s grandfather was a minister at the church, but he wasn’t at Mt. Zion the night that the Klan beat churchgoers. Except, on his walk home, he did see what happened next.
Riley: He noticed a lot of traffic on this little dirt road that hardly had any traffic. And he looked to the north-northwest, and he seen this big glow, and they had torched the church, and he seen the big fire and they got there, and they burned the church.
Bragg: When he looked up ahead, he saw that the Klansmen had burned the church totally to the ground.
Riley: This news hit the wire that another church had been burned in Mississippi.
(More gentle music plays, this time animated by strings rather than a piano line. Again, a persistent beat moves through it.)
Bragg: So, within a few days, three civil-rights workers who were in Ohio at the time for Freedom Summer training heard about what happened in Philadelphia. And so they decided to come down to show solidarity with the community, but also to investigate this church burning—in part because they knew that their organizing had made the church a target.
The three civil-rights workers were all in their 20s: James Chaney, who’s from Mississippi—actually from nearby Meridian—was Black, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were white, Jewish, and they were both from New York. And these three were absolutely being surveilled at the time. The Klan had a nickname for Michael Schwerner. They called him “Goatee.”
Riley: And they came to the site of the church and, um, surveyed the—the damage. They stopped in the neighborhood to interview the people that was beaten fiercely.
Bragg: As they were leaving town, driving directly through the middle of Philadelphia, they were arrested by a Neshoba County sheriff’s officer, allegedly for speeding.
Riley: They were locked up in jail. And then they were released, um, after dark.
Bragg: (Over the sound of keys clanging and a car door closing.) So we get back in the car and drive by the old jail.
Riley: This is the route that they—that they’d taken.
Bragg: And then take the road that they would have taken when they were released from that jail.
Riley: (Over car sounds.) And, uh, so they’d have traveled on down this little road here and taken a right.
Bragg: After the sheriff’s let them out of the local jail, a caravan of Klan members followed them on the road out of town.
Riley: Along here, a pickup truck pulled up beside them and tried to force them off the road. So they started a chase.
Bragg: My stepdad, like, floors the gas pedal. And he’s like, “This is where the chase began.”
Riley: And they were, you know, trying to make it to a—to a safe place. Andas they came along here, a car came out from behind and put the lights on them: the sheriff’s deputy.
Bragg: They get pulled over again.
Riley: So they decided to yield to the—to the lights of the deputy. And they was pulled over—they said somewhere in this area, past Rock Cut Road. And they were detained here, again, put into a sheriff’s car, and escorted back.
Bragg: They turned them back around towards Philadelphia.
Riley: But instead of him taking them to Philadelphia [A long beat, and the turn signal sounds.] they made a—they made an exit here.
(Dissonant, mechanical sounds intone an unsettling melody.)
Bragg: Klansmen had been planning these murders while James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were locked up in the county jail.
Riley: This is the murder site. [The car beeps in acknowledgment.] They stopped the car somewhere along here.
Bragg: The road is surrounded by tall pine trees. And if you were to turn your car lights off, it would be pitch black.
My stepdad prefaces the tour by saying, “This is my recollection, and this is my account of what happened based on my conversations with family and having grown up here.”
Riley: They stopped the car here. And they said right about where that old pine tree is now—right about that stop sign—there was a tree there, so they stopped the police car here in this intersection.
Bragg: They pull out James Chaney first. And he is the only one of the trio who is Black and from Mississippi.
Riley: And made Mickey and Andrew sit in the car and watch, and they took him and they pulled him up to that tree right there. Right here. This is as close of an account that I can give anybody. And they tied him to the tree, and they—they started to beat him. They beat him with—called “log chains,” chains that were used to strap logs down when they carried ’em to market. And, uh, beat and tortured. And when they got tired of beating him, they came back to the car and they got Mickey and they pulled him out of the car. And they shot Mickey point-blank, and he slid down the car dead. And when this happened, said Andrew jumped out of the car and start to run this way. And he was shot in the back.
So this was after a two- or three-hour ordeal of beating. So then they started to clean up the—the scene and get the bodies together. They gathered them up and transported ’em over to the pond dam. Disposed the car in the swamp and torched it.
And that’s where the—the all-out search began.
Longoria: A national search for justice, after the break.
(The music closes for the break.)
Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment. And we’re back with reporter Ko Bragg and an attempt at a reckoning in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
(A simple keyboard melody plays over tense strings.)
Longoria: Mississippi has struggled to grapple with the crime that happened there from the day it was committed.
And one reason why it’s been difficult is because state and local law enforcement in Mississippi helped organized the murder of those three civil-rights workers.
While there are different accounts of what happened at the murder, here’s what we do know. The state had a taxpayer-funded commission that tracked the civil-rights workers. That commission handed over their information to the local sheriff’s department. And the deputy sheriff himself was one of the key perpetrators and a member of the Klan.
The crime got kicked up to the FBI, who sent a team to Philadelphia to investigate.
(The music plays out.)
Riley: I—I can remember that, from where our house was located, uh, these helicopters started to fly in the air, which made a lot of noise. I guess that was kind of—kind of scary, because I can remember kind of hiding from the aircraft underneath the house with my dog and—and looking. And I seen men in green uniform. They looked like the little army men that I used to play with. And they was walking through our back field.
And I—I remember the conversation that, uh, somebody asked, “What are they doing?” And my dad replied, “Oh, they’re looking for those boys.”
Bragg: It took 44 days to find their bodies. And in the meantime this case was in national news. It was in headlines around the country. It was on television. Reporters from all over the country came to Philadelphia, Mississippi.
News announcer: (Over a brief horn flourish.) The FBI today arrested 21 white men in connection with last summer’s murder of three civil-rights workers in Mississippi. Those arrested today must be considered innocent unless proved guilty. It is easy, of course, to be moralistic. It is easy to say that American justice and the nation’s honor are at stake. Unfortunately, they are.
Bragg: One notable thing is that Michael Schwerner’s wife, Rita, had said at the time that the only reason this case got so much attention was because her husband and Andrew Goodman were white.
Reporter: Dr. King, as—as a practical matter, do you think that there can be justice in Mississippi? Despite these arrests, do you think that a Mississippi jury will convict these people?
King: Well, honesty impels me to admit that this would be very difficult.
Bragg: So the state of Mississippi is actually the only entity that had the power to charge the KKK members with murder. And the state refused to charge them.
Riley: In the whole state of Mississippi, rape and murder of Black—it was just, like, nonexistence.
Bragg: So when it was the federal government that brought forth these charges, they could only charge these Klansmen with civil-rights violations. And it took three years of this court battle to reach a verdict.
So it was 1967 when there was finally seven convictions, eight not-guilty verdicts, and three mistrials—and still not a single murder charge.
Longoria: And who were the men on trial?
Bragg: So some of the Klan members were very public people and, in some instances, leaders in the community. One example is Edgar Ray Killen, who was a Klan leader and a Baptist preacher. And he worked closely with the sheriff’s department to organize the murders. And his trial—he ended up getting off on a mistrial because a juror said that they refused to convict a Baptist preacher.
Riley: They were treated as upstanding citizens. Those people, from the time of those murders until the time that they were convicted or died, never lost their place in their community. As a matter, some of them might’ve even been elevated in their community.
Bragg: There’s this saying that justice delayed is justice denied. And I think Mississippi was reckoning with that in a lot of different spheres stemming from the fact that, in one instance, like, Brown v. Board was decided in 1954 and it wasn’t until around 1970, 1971, that it bothered to integrate its schools. So the failure to receive any justice for this crime—for these murders during Freedom Summer—didn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s happening in all of these other ways that Mississippi is holding on to its reputation for racial terrorism.
Riley: It’s, uh, ‘You don’t understand that this could affect my life, and I don’t want my life affected by the truth.’
(The music goes quiet.)
Bragg: So decades passed, and it was always an open secret that the people responsible for the Freedom Summer murders still were living, breathing members of the community.
Bailiff: All rise! (The crowd in the room stands.)
Judge Marcus D. Gordon: The sentencing of Edgar Ray Killen is set this morning for 10 o’clock.
Bragg: So it was actually 40 years after the murders that the community formed a coalition and pressured the state of Mississippi to bring charges.
Judge Gordon: Now, you have to remember that I have a job to do, and I have to pass upon a sentence to a person who’s 80 years old. And the jury did not find Mr. Killen guilty of murder, but found him guilty of manslaughter.
Bragg: And Edgar Ray Killen, who was that Baptist preacher who got off on a mistrial, was finally convicted for manslaughter at the age of 80 years old.
And I think it’s worth saying that Edgar Ray Killen went to prison on a manslaughter conviction, and not for murder. What that means is that no one has ever gone to prison explicitly for murdering James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, or Michael Schwerner.
(A soft, ebullient bass line rises up from below.)
Bragg: All in all, it’s not so dissimilar from the way that Philadelphia treats this history present-day.
Riley: You know, it’s always … Truth—truth is uncomfortable. Sun—the sun burns when you have to stand in it, but it cleanses.
What I found in this community is that sometimes we’ll go into—rather than facing it and saying, “Hey, this is—these are facts”—we kind of take the head-in-the-sand denial and, um, just denial, deny that anything could’ve happened to ’em in this town or city or county.
Bragg: When you pull back and think about the fact that the state of Mississippi was complicit in this crime from the very beginning, it’s really not that surprising that we’ve never had a real reckoning.
Riley: Just act like it never happened. We’re not gonna talk about it, we’re not going to discuss it, and it’ll go away,
Bragg: Even over the years, there’s examples of when Philadelphia has resurfaced in the national consciousness, and white people—particularly white people in power—have managed to leave the murders out of the history completely.
(The music fades away.)
Bragg: In 1980, which was less than two decades after the Freedom Summer murders, Ronald Reagan chose to launch his presidential campaign in—of all places—at the county fair, right outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi. And, in his speech, to this lily-white crowd, he not only failed to mention the recent history of the Freedom Summer murders, but he focused his speech on state’s rights, which was absolutely documented as a dog whistle.
On top of that, recent laws that are restricting the way history is taught aren’t helping.
Riley: Because it’s—it’s uncomfortable and it’s, uh, it’s embarrassing. And it’s some, uh, sores that hasn’t healed. It’s just been festering there.
And that’s why we’re still here struggling over trying to tell the story, ’cause you’re always telling—you’re lancing the wound, but you’re never getting to the root.
And—and that’s why it keeps festering. And that’s why, you know, it’s so important that the story is told from all sides and, you know, we can only be better for them.
(The persistent beat returns over stern strings.)
Bragg: People like my stepdad, and even people a generation older than him—is it their responsibility, as people who have lived and whose lives have been completely shaped by this violence, this history? Does the onus fall solely on them to make sure that we don’t forget this history?
(A beat, and then the music disappears.)
Bragg: Did you ever have hope that maybe the city or the county would step up and preserve this history?
Riley: No, I haven’t had that hope. What I’ve had is just a lot of struggle and effort to try and maintain the story and keep it alive.
This story has to be told. This—this has to be kept alive. If you don’t, we’ll fall back into the same—same thing.
We’re like a recovering alcoholic—not a recovered, but recovering—that has never faced his truth or tried to make amends to the people they’ve mistreated and hurt.
Bragg: Is it hard for you to recount this history over and over again?
Riley: This history has just been part of my life. And I—I think the reason why I haven’t been so uncomfortable with it: It didn’t just happen to me. It happened to us.
It not only happened to me in my brothers and sisters and cousins that live here; it happened to this nation. So it’s not—it’s not a burden that I just carry. I just happened to be born and lived here, but it—it happened to us.
I feel that I’ve done a, um—done a justice by sharing it. And—and it’s just like planting seeds.
This is the way I look at you, Ko. You’ll do a good job doing it. You have the connections because you live it and you connect it to the people that grew up with it. So what better person to tell the story?
This is history. And I think you’re the right person to do it.
Bragg: That’s interesting. I—I think I also, like, have been, uh … That’s been like a question for me, too, of, like, um, both the balance of feeling like this is home for me and then, like, who—whose responsibility really is this, in terms of, like, the storytelling?
And I guess it’s also a generational question. Like, [Spelling it out slowly, articulating each word with a world of thought between them.] who then takes up—I don’t know! Is this my responsibility? You know?
Riley: It is, yeah. It’s your responsibility.
Because it is, Ko.
You look at it like this: It is your responsibility to tell the story. It’s my responsibility to give you the story. It wasn’t meant for you to live it. It was meant for you to tell it.
So that’s—that’s what I think. Not your responsibility to … fix anything or—damn. It’s your responsibility to share it—to get it out to people is the best way you can.
(The persistent beat tracks now with a synthesizer bed.)
Natalia Ramirez: This episode of The Experiment was produced by Gabrielle Berbey, with help from Salman Ahad Khan. Editing by Michael May and Julia Longoria. Reporting by Ko Bragg.
You can read Ko Bragg’s full article “Who Will Remember the Mississippi Murders?” on our website, www.theatlantic.com/experiment.
Special thanks to Jewel McDonald, Dr. Julia Riley, and Ms. Gale and Mt. Zion’s First Class Bible Class.
Fact-check by Naomi Sharp. Sound design by Hannis Brown with additional engineering by Jennifer Munson.
Music by Hannis Brown and Tasty Morsels.
(A distorted music box supersedes the beat—rewound, maybe?)
Ramirez: Our team also includes Tracie Hunte, Emily Botein, Jenny Lawton, Alyssa Edes, and me, Natalia Ramirez.
If you enjoyed today’s episode, please take the time to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.
(The backward music box, once strange, now seems inviting. Its halting scales welcome you in, and then, just as quickly as you called it home, it vanishes.)