Florence Mars, a white native of Philadelphia, Miss., wrote in 1977 that “society will act against its own best interest to protect itself from the truth.” These are my thoughts reinforced when I think about the hometown I share with Mars, a descendant of a wealthy family there who chronicled her civil-rights defiance in her 1977 book “Witness in Philadelphia.” 

Philadelphia is located in the heart of the American South, about 81 miles northeast from Jackson and had approximately 7,005 residents in 1990, three years after I graduated high school in 1987. Thanks to my parents, family and friends, growing up there was fun for me. 

The book cover for "Witness in Philadelphia" by Florence Mars
Florence Mars, a local white woman, wrote a non-fiction book about racism in her hometown in 1977.” Book cover courtesy LSU Press

In a town with two public schools—one for the county and the other for the town—I began my education at Neshoba Central Elementary School and then attended Neshoba Central Junior High school, but I eventually switched to Philadelphia Junior High school in the 9th grade, and I ultimately graduated from Philadelphia High School in 1987. I mention this because I have a unique perspective, drawing from my experience from both the county and city school systems.

While I was there, I had many great times but I had my share of disappointments, which included the normal teenage stuff like girls, ball games and grades. However, my biggest letdown from growing up there wasn’t realized until years after I left my school in 1987.

It was the exclusion of my town’s infamous history in local education.

What Actually Happened to These Men?

Growing up in the heart of the Deep South in the 1980s, I would see certain things in my surroundings that I didn’t quite understand. Even without fully grasping what these things meant at the time, they gave me an uneasy feeling. It included language, music, artifacts, social order, and exaggeration or exclusion of history.

As a fourth grader, I went on a class field trip to the Ross Barnett reservoir near Jackson. The tour guide told us the reservoir was named after a past governor of Mississippi. Our teacher claimed to us that Ross Barnett was a great man. He may have been great to white Mississippians, but once I learned his history, he decidedly was not a hero to me because he was a staunch segregationist. He tried to deny Black Air Force veteran James Meredith admission to the University of Mississippi due to his race, leading to a deadly riot on campus.

I didn’t find this out until my young adulthood through documentaries and word of mouth from community elders. Because my schools excluded the truth about him, I walked around for a long time thinking Ross Barnett was a good man. That teacher’s endorsement, coupled with never being taught otherwise about Mississippi’s segregationist governor, intentionally misled me. That was my truth until I found out the facts on my own.

1964 Mississippi Poster
The Ku Klux Klan executed three young men—a Black man from Meridian and two white activists from New York City—in 1964 because they were helping Black people register to vote in Mississippi. Andrew Goodman was 20, James Chaney 21, and Michael Schwerner was 24. Photo public domain.

In my later elementary years, my best friend and I would spend our weekends searching for a local football or basketball game to play in throughout our neighborhoods. In pursuit of a ballgame challenge, we’d eventually pass by Mount Nebo Church in a historic Black neighborhood. There, I would always notice the headstone with three individuals who died on the same day. I thought maybe it was due to a car wreck.

Now, two of the men on the headstone were white, and one of the men was
Black; even at that young age growing up in a Black neighborhood, I knew it was unusual that they’d be traveling together in 1964. Everytime I passed the headstone, I wondered what actually happened to these men. I would say to myself, “I’m going to ask someone”; however, guided by my immature mind and my priority of playing ball, I would always forget to follow up.

Finally, as I moved into my teenage years, through word of mouth and documentaries, I began to understand why those men were on that headstone. Ku Klux Klan members from Philadelphia and nearby Meridian killed James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman with help from Philadelphia law enforcement when they visited my town trying to help preserve my civil rights in June 1964.

Business As Usual in Philadelphia

Later, after I graduated high school, I found out this crime was one of the most notorious in the civil rights era with books written and documentaries made about the 1964 murder of these young men. It was so big that a 1988 movie, “Mississippi Burning,” was loosely based on the 1964 murders. The murders in my hometown played a pivotal role in getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed.

Yet, in a town with 7,900 people, it was business as usual. It seemed as if my hometown just erased that infamous crime from its memory.

Well, from my perspective it hovers over the town till this day; no matter how bad some would like to bury it, it still happened here, where I call home. On Dec. 12, 1976, Mount Nebo Baptist Church dedicated the headstone monument in memory of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman; this headstone monument remains a must-see for me even to this day when I return to Philadelphia.

Neshoba County Confederate Statue
Dr. Santario P. Stribling, who is from Philadelphia, Miss., writes that the Confederate statue on the courthouse lawn there taught him the Confederacy was something to be proud of due to its honored location. No teacher taught him differently. Photo by Donna Ladd

Many times, I would go to “downtown” Philadelphia (which is basically a couple of blocks), and I’d see the Confederate soldier statue and Mississippi state flag (which was a variation of the Confederate battle flag until 2020). As a child I knew that it had to be something the town was proud of because it was displayed at the courthouse. I wanted to be a good citizen of the United States so subliminally, a part of me wanted to look at it with respect. Still, when I would see it, something just didn’t sit right with me.

In school, I’d hear conversations about the flag and the Confederacy in positive terms. These myths and singular points of view have lasting effects. During a recent trip home, a group of my high school peers spoke about how silly we must have looked dancing to the song “Dixie” as the band played it in the high school football pep rallies. “Dixie” is a tune I’ve heard my whole life. It coincided with the cultural rejuvenation of white supremacy in the 20th century. It was part of the score of “Birth of a Nation,” the movie that helped revive the KKK through its glorification of the post-Civil War Klan, formed to scare Black people in the South to exercise their newly won rights.

Segregationist Dixiecrats in the 1940s embraced the song. White southerners had used it as a southern anthem during the age of the Confederacy. Then, in the 1980s, we were dancing to it. It wasn’t that we endorsed the song “Dixie” or its history; we were never told its history in the school setting. I’m sure whoever authorized “Dixie” to be played at our high-school pep rallies knew the history.  It seemed the town was just fine with that. 

Taking Up Arms Against the U.S. Army

When I joined the Army, I really became interested in the Civil War and its impact on American society. Subsequently, as I navigated my way through college, I learned the truth beyond the romanticized version of the Confederacy that many in the white South embrace. Internet research, access to primary source documents and instructors gave me the unfiltered version of the Civil War. My African American history courses emphasized the Black perspective of the Civil War.

This belated information was reinforced when I became an educator myself and continued my research in preparation for my classes. Even now, some still refuse to admit what the foundation of the civil war was about despite written documentation from primary sources explaining why the southern states seceded from the Union, which led to the U.S. Civil War.

Mississippi new flag flaying over a long building
The State of Mississippi finally changed its flag celebrating a war to maintain and extend slavery in 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota to this flag that does not pay homage to the Confederacy or slavery. Black Mississippians had led the fight to change it for over a century and again led it in 2020. Photo courtesy MDAH

It’s disappointing and patronizing to me that these same people will say to me “thank you for your service” while they simultaneously sympathize with the Confederacy and view them as heroes. The fact is Confederate soldiers not only fought a war to preserve the institution of slavery, but the rebels also took up arms against the organization that I’ve given over half my life to—the U.S. Army. I guess Philadelphia is fine with that.

I am not here to disparage the area I was raised in. I am a true southerner; I was born and raised there, played ball and fought with my cousins in Laurel Hill, played ball against my classmates from the Stallo, Hopewell, Dixon and Longdale communities, and of course hung out with friends from the Blakley Street area.

I have four college degrees, three of which are graduate degrees from Texas, but when I’m asked where I went to school, I naturally say, “Mississippi State University.” That is my undergraduate degree, but it’s my home state’s school, and it has special meaning to me.

Yes, Things Are Better, But ...

My final resting place will eventually be in Mississippi.

However, my biggest disappointment is that my region of the country downplays important civil-rights facts, glamorizes some of the racist men this country has ever known, sympathizes with the side opposing the United States in the Civil War, and still adheres to many unwritten rules of society that seems to me ancient, yet have always been the normal, save for a few brave individuals who are not going to be told how to live their lives.

These disappointments and myths manifest in generations of Black and white people that are ignorant to the past and what we can learn from it, myself included. Some are willfully ignorant of the past. I wasn’t willfully ignorant; like many, I did not know any better. For many years this lack of knowledge has created a false sense of thinking that everything is alright there. “You have food on the table,” “it’s better than it was in the 1960s,” “you live in a nice home,” “just be happy, just accept it.”

This approach meant giving in to the appearance that there is no racial animosity as long as you adhere to the unwritten rules of “that’s the way it’s always been” and you dare not look any deeper and question it. Yet, it’s still there. One of my biggest disappointments is that growing up, I thought that this bias only came from the small-minded people who wanted to exploit a societal order they felt benefited them socially even if it didn’t benefit them financially. They might not have had much money, but at least they are not at the bottom of the social order, right?

Even in 2024, the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner are still memorialized mostly in Black communities. This placard sits outside Mount Zion United Methodist Church, which the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement burned in 1964 due to civil-rights workers trying to help register people to vote there. Photo by Donna Ladd

However, in many cases, it was also the educated and “so called” responsible members of our society in positions of influence like policemen, elected officials, teachers and even preachers who were complicit in the bias, violence, and exclusion of facts.

Recently on a trip home to Philadelphia, I took a morning run that led me to “downtown” Philadelphia. As I looked at the Confederate soldier monument and new Mississippi flag at the courthouse, I had mixed feelings. It has always baffled me that so many in a county with so many American “patriots” still romanticize the opposing Army. Yes, things are better. I thought we made progress with the changing of the state flag, yet the Confederate statue remains in front of the Neshoba County courthouse.

I’m still disappointed today on the 60th anniversary of the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner for trying to help my people in my hometown. I still have that uneasy feeling, not just because I now know the truth. It is because where I grew up tried to conceal it from me.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Crirec, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

Dr. Santario P. Stribling was born and raised in Philadelphia, Miss. He is a retired educator and a U.S. Army veteran.