Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ex-FBI agent recalls Mississippi murders

Former FBI Special Agent Floyd Thomas told a group of Massachusetts High School students this week about the investigation into the disappearance of three civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner,James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman in 1964, and the subsequent discovery of their bodies and investigation into the murders:

The students sat quietly, listening to Thomas as he recounted the facts, the investigation and the outcome of one of the South's most publicized murder cases.

"I was a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigations 1951 to 1973," he said, beginning his tale.

The Freedom Summer Murders were attributed to Ku Klux Klan members in Philadelphia, Miss. Thomas spent three months away from his family in Arkansas investigating the case.

"I received a phone call from headquarters advising me to leave immediately and go to Meridian, Miss.," he said.

He continued, "Down in the area of Philadelphia, there had been three people reported missing down there, plus a rented station wagon."

A bystander's tip led Thomas and his partner to look through the woods nearby, where they located a station wagon matching the description of the missing vehicle.

"You could just barely see it in the weeds out there — the top of a vehicle. The doors were partially open...and everything that was flammable was burned."

"The outside of the car wasn't burned or anything, and the weeds weren't burned, so they had it towed in," he continued, "So now we had found our vehicle, but still had three missing persons."

Thomas let the group in on the methods he used when working a case, saying, "Working a crime investigation is just like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.

"You've got all these pieces and you've got to get the pieces all together to get the picture," he said.

Thomas and his partner then learned that the three missing individuals had been arrested some time previously and detained at the Philadelphia jail after a traffic stop.

It's believed that during their detainment, the sheriff conspired with local KKK members to release the three men in time for them to be intercepted on the highway by men with bad intentions.

Thomas and his partner worked with a local naval base to use ultraviolet photos viewing recently disturbed plots of land.

"So we dug all that. We had 30 sailors from over at the base there helping us drag ponds," he said, adding a brief anecdote about other pastimes the sailors found to entertain themselves.

"I don't know how much money the government spent on chickens," he said with a chuckle.

He explained, "Those sailors figured out they could throw a fire cracker into the chicken houses and when it went off all the chickens around would suffocate. They had dead chickens scattered around all over there."

Thomas spent his time checking for decomposition in the soil and looking for new construction sites.

It was in one such location, a dam still under construction, where Thomas and the other investigators found the bodies of the missing men 44 days after they vanished.

Thomas continued, "I heard on the radio just before I got there — 'I think we found them. We found a shoe heel.'"

"The shoe heel turned out to be the shoe heel of one of the boys that was buried in the dam."

He described how the men were laying, the intricate procedure of trying to excavate the bodies without destroying the evidence and a joke Thomas attempted that "went over like a lead balloon" with the man he told it to.

"We got to this one kid, and he had a little place under his arm here," Thomas said as he pointed to his left side.

"You've got to have a little humor to go along, or else you'll go nuts," he said.

"I said to the kid in the hole with me, 'This guy's been hurt! Go get us a doctor!'"

The man climbed out of the hole, now at 25 feet deep, and reported to those around, "This guy's crazy. Obviously (the victim)'s dead, he's been down there for three months."

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Freedom Riders reunite after 50 years

The BBC has an article on the reuniting of the original Freedom Riders in Jackson, Mississippi, last week:

Back in 1961, Jim Crow customs ruled the Deep South. Despite a Supreme Court ruling making segregation on interstate buses illegal, black passengers were still expected to sit at the back.

The Freedom Riders refused to abide by convention, infuriating the white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan.

On 14 May, a white mob attacked a Greyhound bus carrying Hank Thomas and six other activists as well as regular passengers, near Anniston, Alabama.

Hezekiah Watkins was one of the Freedom Riders Its tyres were slashed, and the bus hissed to a halt. A firebomb was lobbed through the back window, filling the air with poisonous smoke.

"I knew I was going to die," recalls Thomas, aged 19 at the time. "It was a question of the best way to do it: leave the bus and be beaten to death, or stay and burn?"

An exploding fuel tank saved his life. The crowd retreated, allowing the suffocating passengers to clamber free.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

John Lewis asks graduates to build a better society

During a graduation speech at University of Mary Washington Saturday, Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga. one of the original Freedom Riders and a civil rights pioneer, urged the graduates to "build a better society."

The school issued the following news release:

Civil rights icon John Lewis called on the University of Mary Washington class of 2011 to build a better society, urging the graduates to challenge injustices as he delivered the undergraduate commencement address on Saturday, May 7.

“You must stand up. You must speak up. You must speak out,” said Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Georgia. “You must create a world community at peace with itself.”

Lewis, a 1961 Freedom Rider, praised the university for its three-month tribute to the Freedom Rides and to their architect, the late civil rights leader James Farmer who taught at Mary Washington. The Freedom Rides successfully defied segregated interstate bus travel and facilities in the South.

“No other college in America is pausing like you have to celebrate and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides,” he said. “I come here to say thank you, thank you.”

“The University of Mary Washington is a bright light in the education of all of our citizens about the issues of civil rights, human rights and social justice,” he said. “You have discovered that the cause of civil rights is not just the legacy of…one people, but all Americans. We all must play a role in helping to build a just and open society.”

Lewis spoke to about 5.000 people, including graduates, family members, friends and faculty, gathered in Ball Circle for the 100th annual commencement. The university awarded a total of 1,295 degrees in the May 7 undergraduate ceremony and the May 6 graduate ceremony, including 450 bachelor of arts degrees, 42 bachelor of liberal studies degrees, 92 bachelor of professional studies degrees and 459 bachelor of science degrees, as well as 252 master’s degrees.

In his remarks, Lewis recalled his upbringing in Alabama. Born to sharecroppers in 1940, he attended segregated public schools. “Whites only” signs were commonplace. “As a young child, I tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and racial discrimination,” Lewis said. When he questioned his parents about segregation, they said “that’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”

But as a teenager, Lewis was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. aired on radio broadcasts “as if he were speaking to me…to get involved.” In those pivotal moments, Lewis made a decision to become a part of the Civil Rights movement.

“I got in trouble,” he said. “It was good trouble. Necessary trouble. James (Farmer) and the Freedom Riders 50 years ago got in trouble. Necessary trouble. Good trouble to bring down those signs that said ‘white men, colored men, white women, colored women.’ Those signs are gone and they will not return.”

“Your children, the only place they’ll see those signs is in a book, in a museum, on a video. We live in a better country. We’re on our way to the creation of a beloved community where we can lay down the burden of race and create a society where we can forget about race.”

Lewis was a student at Fisk University when he organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn. At 21, he “had all my hair and was a few pounds lighter” when he joined the Freedom Rides, he recalled. Lewis endured vicious beatings at the hands of angry mobs and, in all, more than 40 arrests for challenging segregation. Yet he remained a devoted advocate of nonviolence.

“You must never ever give up. You must never ever give in,” he said. “Get out there and push and pull, and do your part to create a loving community in redeeming the soul of America. You can do it. You must do it.”

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Lewis helped organize and chair the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that was responsible for coordinating student activism. He was a young man when he was deemed one of the “Big Six” leaders of the movement along with King and Farmer.

Farmer, who taught history at Mary Washington for about a dozen years, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton in 1998. This year, Lewis himself received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, who as Lewis noted was born the year of the 1961 Rides.

In concluding his remarks, Lewis urged the graduates to make a commitment to justice, no matter how difficult the path.

“My friends, the storms may come. The winds may blow. The thunder may roll. The lightning may flash. And the rain may be beat down on our old house. Call it the house of UMW,” Lewis said. “Call it the house of Virginia. Call it the house of Georgia or California or New York. Call it the house of Alabama. Call it the American house. We all live in the same house.”

“I say to you as you leave this university, as you leave this little piece of real estate, you still have the power to change the social, economic and political structures around you. You still have the power to lead a nonviolent revolution of values and ideas in your community and around the world. If you use that power, if you use your education, use your talent, use your skills, use that power, then a new and better world is yours to build.”

“So I say to you today, walk with the wind. Let the spirit of history, the spirit of UMW, and the spirit of the Freedom Rides be your guide.”

Following the address, Daniel K. Steen, rector of the university’s Board of Visitors, conferred an honorary doctor of humane letters degree on Lewis.

He has been awarded over 50 honorary degrees from universities throughout the United State. He also holds a B.A. in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, and he is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Nashville, Tennessee.

Lewis was elected to Congress in 1986 and has served as U.S. representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since then. He is Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party in leadership in the House and is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and chairman of its Subcommittee on Oversight.

Two years ago, Lewis was visited in his office by a man who had encountered Lewis on May 9, 1961 in Rock Hill, S.C. The man, who was a Klansman in 1961, had beaten Lewis that day in South Carolina. Nearly 48 years later, the man came to apologize to Lewis and to ask for forgiveness.

“He started crying. He gave me a hug. I started crying and I hugged him back,” Lewis said. “That is what the movement was all about – to build a sense of community. We all live in the same house because we are one people.”

Freedom Riders say today's youth disconnected from battle against racism

In an article in today's Washington Post, the legacy of the Freedom Rides, which took place 50 years ago, is combined with a look at today's young people:

One of the youngest of the riders, Hezekiah Watkins, is now 63 years old and lives across town from Lovelady in Jackson. He has found himself thinking the same thing when he looks at his 21-year-old daughter, Kristie. In recent weeks, as he has given interviews and speeches about his experience during the rides, he has juxtaposed his teenage years with hers.

“A lot of times, she feels as though somebody owes her. I’m always asking, ‘What are you owed and by whom?’ ” Watkins said. “I talked to all of my kids about the ’60s and what we went through. They’ll just look at me like, ‘It’s not relevant.’ My thing has always been this: You’re standing on a banana peel, and any given day you could slip.”

For Hank Thomas, who was 19 when he joined the Freedom Riders, the contrast between his experiences and those of young people today could not be more stark.

Fifty years ago, the sacrifice was unambiguous. Forcing integration on the South meant putting your body on the line. It meant buying a bus ticket down to Jackson after hearing about the bus firebombed in Anniston and the men and women beaten in Birmingham and Montgomery.

“You never knew what was going to happen,” Thomas said, remembering the anxiety of the times.

Thomas, a black businessman, lives outside Atlanta. He owns three McDonald’s franchises and three Marriott hotels. When he was in the first group of 13 riders, launched with little fanfare by the Congress of Racial Equity, they called themselves the “young eagles.” Thomas jokes now that they are the “bald eagles.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. considered that first ride a fool’s errand, and at one point he declined an invitation to board the bus with the students. The young felt haughty about going where the leader of the civil rights movement would not dare. Their protest, in retrospect, is credited with giving the nonviolent movement a template for future campaigns.

Monday, May 2, 2011

John Lewis to be honored at NAACP dinner

Congressman John Lewis a civil rights pioneer, will be honored at a NAACP dinner today in Detroit:

Civil Rights pioneer and U.S. Rep. John Lewis and musician Kid Rock will share the spotlight today at the Detroit NAACP branch’s annual Fight for Freedom Fund dinner at Cobo Center.

Lewis, who grew up in racially segregated Pike County, Ala., just miles from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a movement to end segregation on Montgomery’s buses, is the keynote speaker.

Inspired by King, Lewis organized marches, led lunch-counter sit-ins, helped integrate interstate bus systems and organized voter education and registration drives.

Lewis became a symbol of the movement when he and other protesters were attacked by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they tried to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. So horrifying was the attack that it became known as Bloody Sunday.