Philadelphia, Mississippi — notorious in American history as the place where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964 — made another kind of history last week. In a moment fraught with overtones of atonement and breakthrough, this tiny town of 8,000 elected their first African American mayor, James Young.
To understand the paradigm shift that this election signifies, read some of the accounts by civil rights activists who went there in those terrible days of 1964, watch the movie “Mississippi Burning” about the investigation into the murders, and read about the subsequent trials of the members of the Ku Klux Klan and others involved with the murders.
Philadelphia MS remains a predominantly white town, but clearly, the electorate there was ready to signal a clear break with the tragic, racist past that has haunted the place all these years. While Barack Obama’s election signified a breakthrough on the national stage of race relations and political opportunities, the real measure of racial progress in this country is at the local level where people live, work, shop and send their kids to school — and where they vote. In too many places in our nation, neighborhoods and schools remain radically segregated, and racial prejudice is a disease that still courses beneath the surface pleasantries. But change is apparent in many places, and even in the deep South, as James Young’s election attests, equal opportunity is more possible than ever thanks to the sacrifices of prior generations.
Threats to equal opportunity and simple justice remain. Right now the Supreme Court is considering a case that could strip important civil rights protections out of the Voting Rights Act. Voting rights for disenfranchised Black citizens of Mississippi was the motivating force for the organizers who went to Philadelphia in 1964, risking their lives for the simple justice of allowing every citizen to vote. Three of the civil rights murders paid the ultimate price. While this nation has made progress in the last four decades, the lessons of history remind us that vigilance in the cause of justice should not relent.