Speakers at civil-rights memorial service decry voter apathy

Published 1:20 pm Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mississippians need to battle voter apathy to fulfill the purpose of the civil rights movement, attorney Constance Slaughter-Harvey said this past weekend during a memorial service for three young activists killed here 43 years ago.

Slaughter-Harvey was the keynote speaker Sunday during the service at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church outside Philadelphia. It’s the same black church where civil-rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman went on June 21, 1964, to investigate a firebombing by the Ku Klux Klan.

The three young men were arrested and jailed for speeding as they left the church. Hours later, they were released to a mob of waiting Klansmen, who chased them down a dark, rural highway and killed them. Their bodies were found weeks later, buried in a red-clay dam in Neshoba County.

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“James, Michael, and Andrew were here because they believed in the power of the ballot, and in believing in the power of the ballot, you must register,” Slaughter-Harvey said Sunday.

On June 21, 2005, exactly 41 years after the young men disappeared, former Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of three counts of manslaughter in their deaths. It was the first time the state had brought charges in the case.

About 100 people attended Sunday’s service. The Rev. M.C. Thompson Jr. spoke out voter apathy, especially among young people.

“After all we have (gone) through, we should be running to the polls,” Thompson said. “We’ve come a long ways, and by all means have a ways to go.”

Slaughter-Harvey was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Mississippi Law School, and she worked on former Gov. William Winter’s staff. She successfully argued the case that led to the desegregation of the Mississippi Highway Patrol. She continues to practice law in her hometown of Forest.

Slaughter-Harvey spoke Sunday about the need for equality in politics and education.

“Gov. (Haley) Barbour has had more than 15 judicial appointments during his three and a half years in office, and not one, not one, has been an African-American,” she said.

“One thing that bothers me, and I know the men we honor here today would be quite upset, is the role society plays in stigmatizing African-American male children,” she said. “Our black males receive a different curriculum than other students, the educational system will quickly toss them out into an alternative prison cell.”