For my dad’s 60th birthday, the two of us went to our favorite restaurant overlooking the Ross Barnett Reservoir and we just talked. I was 14 at the time but even then I knew something was different. He was having a good time but there was something in his eyes that told a story I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand.
“I’m really not supposed to be here…” he said looking off in the distance while simultaneously retreating to his own memories.
I’d known most of the stories: how he never expected to see the other side of the Freedom Rides, fully expecting to die sometime along the Interstate in Alabama or Mississippi. How the unsung hero C.O. Chinn stood guard in Canton, MS while there was a Wanted: Dead Or Alive poster out for my father. How George Raymond told him to “take to the woods” as they hid out from the Klan overnight. How he was one joke away from riding with Medgar Evars the night he was murdered.
And I know about June 21st, 1964.
On that night, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman went missing in Neshoba County after going to investigate a fire that burned down Mt. Zion Baptist church. By now you probably know the story. The three men were murdered. Lynched. Brutalized. By Klansmen, government officials and police officers that night. My dad, one of the leaders of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) assigned the three men to that mission.
Also, my father was supposed to go with the three men on that trip. He had bronchitis and had to stay behind.
Of all of the tragedies, close calls and traumatic experiences of the Civil Rights movement and Freedom Summer, the Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner murders haunt him the most. He’ll often wonder if things would have been different if he were the fourth man in that car. Or maybe if he should have made that sacrifice with them.
It’s a chilling reminder of what America put people like my dad through. He’s often considered his work with CORE and navigating Freedom Summer and the Freedom Rides before it as similar to being an army general. Often he sent people on missions with the awareness that he could very well be sending them to their deaths. He survived a war in America where bombings, assassination attempts and the threat of death was at every corner all because a few people wanted to be treated equally in this country.
So for his 60th birthday, I sat there and listened to a man who’d lived the previous 35 years on borrowed time. It’s the same thing I did Saturday night, as my father recounted – to the minute – the events that transpired 50 years ago as he was getting the news that the three workers had gone missing. Except Saturday night it wasn’t just the two of us. We were surrounded by dozens of other Freedom Fighters, Civil Rights Movement Survivors and CORE members in New Orleans.
This summer marks the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Summer – an event my dad had a pivotal role in, but also the summer of the murders in Neshoba County. I was able to see my dad on Father’s Day as he was in Jackson, MS for a few commemorative events. He was trying to juggle his schedule and figure out which celebrations he’d be able to attend, but there were just too many.
I stopped and asked him, “50 years ago, did you think you’d be in Jackson trying to figure out which celebration you’d be going to for Freedom Summer?”
“I didn’t even think I’d be anywhere after that summer.”
But he is somewhere. He’s alive. Despite the odds, he’s survived America’s Unnamed Civil War and is living to tell the tale. Unfortunately, too many of his friends can’t say the same. Their sacrifices are reminders of how precious life is especially if you’ve been forced to fight for it. As far as my dad’s concerned, these sacrifices have motivated him to keep his friends’ legacies alive while also enjoying the life he’s been blessed with for much longer than he thought possible. I’m not sure what forces were in play to keep him safe in the darkest hours, but I’m damn sure they did.
Salute to the heroes. We’ll never be able to thank you enough.