On the night of June 16, 1964, Bud and Beatrice Cole, along with four other adults and two children, were attending a stewards' meeting to discuss finances at the Mt. Zion Methodist Church east of Philadelphia, Miss.
Just the night before, they had a meeting at the church to discuss whether or not to work with Michael Schwerner. The civil-rights worker had already visited Mt. Zion, where the black parishioners were interested in allowing him to establish a Freedom School. Through it, their family members could augment the poor public education the state allowed them and study to take the poll test that white Mississippi required to keep them from registering to vote.
It was dangerous for black Mississippians to try to vote or to get more educated, but they were willing to try. They even had printed flyers to distribute around the community. But, thankfully, Beatrice Cole left them at home in her other purse on the night of the stewards' meeting.
Just after 9 p.m., the meeting ended, and John Steele turned off the lights and locked the door of the church. The parishioners got into their cars and drove a few yards before seeing a line of cars and trucks barreling toward the church down the dirt road. Several vehicles filled with local Ku Klux Klan members screeched to halt, blocking their exit. Five men got out carrying pistols and shotguns. "Shut off those damn lights!" a Klansman shouted. The men then demanded to know where Schwerner was.
After church-goers said they didn't know, the mob allowed some to leave. But not the Coles or Mrs. Georgia Rush and her son John Thomas. The mob pulled them out of their cars, beating the Rushes, including pistol-whipping Mrs. Rush.
Other angry Klansmen dragged the Coles out of their vehicle, searching them. They only found Sunday School materials in Mrs. Cole's purse, though.
"You better say something, or we'll kill you," one Klucker told Bud Cole, then beat him repeatedly with a blackjack while stomping him. As Beatrice watched her husband being bludgeoned, she asked one of the Klansmen, "Will you let me pray?"
"If you think it will do any good, you'd better pray," he answered.
Mrs. Cole got on her knees on the dirt road, bowed her head and tried to save the life of her husband. "Father, I stretch out my hands to Thee, I stretch out my hands to Thee. No other help I know."
Her prayer was from page 282 in the Methodist Hymn-Book.
"Let him live!" one of the other Klansmen yelled about Mr. Cole.
The men then jumped in their vehicles and fled. Back at the Bloomo school, Klansmen from Meridian made fun of the Neshoba County boys for not doing better than that. "Hell, we can whip n*ggers any time we want on the streets in Philadelphia. We don't have to travel all the way out there to do it."
So the Klansmen went back and burned the church to the ground. By the next morning, all that was left among the ashes were the foundation and the bell, which had fallen from the steeple. And a glass jug that reeked of kerosene.
On Father's Day, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman returned with Schwerner to talk to the people of the community and poke around the ashes.
It would be their last day alive, thanks to the Confederate flag-waving Klansmen in my hometown, and the three names would become part of history as they were martyred in an episode that helped convince the national Democratic Party to pass federal civil-rights laws, even if it meant losing the southern Dixecrats to a reconfigured Republican Party for, at least, decades to come.
Every June, people gather at Mount Zion, which has been rebuilt, to honor the three men that died who are as close to heroes as this nation will ever know. Over the years, they've been disrespected by many Mississippians, among them white men who have represented us in Washington, D.C.—from Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran on down—who have refused to vote for resolutions honoring them or to sign on to a national symbolic apology for not doing more to stop the lynching of black people (often with police help) for so long.
Back here at home, Gov. Kirk Fordice belittled opponent Dick Molpus publicly for apologizing to the families of the three men on the 25th anniversary of their execution to get racists to vote against Molpus. That kind of callous response by so many white people and politicians has been a painful way of life for Mississippians of all races who crave to lead lives greater than our history seems to allow, and to see our neighbors do the same.
But at least most of us know the three men's names and what they did.
Far fewer know the names of Junior Roosevelt "Bud" and Beatrice Cole; Georgia and John Thomas Rush; T.J. Miller; James M. Cole; Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Steele; and then-10 year-old John Steele and 8-year-old Jackie, all of whom faced the Klan.
Every time I go to Mount Zion, I wander through the cemetery to visit the graves of the older parishioners who were there that night, the ones who found the courage to stand up to a mob of local men who were told by "upstanding" Mississippi that it was OK to terrorize black people, that they were inferior anyway. I see that cemetery as a field of unsung heroes—people who, against every odd, decided to stand up when people told them they couldn't. I immediately thought of them when I saw the pictures of the nine people a Rebel flag-obsessed white supremacist mowed down during an AME Bible study in Charleston, S.C., last week.
I especially can't get the face of 87-year-old Ms. Susie Jackson out of my head. By 1964, she had lived almost 40 years during Jim Crow and, oh, what she must've seen. She could have told us stories about the nastiness of white people who believed she was inferior. She probably feared the Ku Klux Klan and, like every black mother and grandmother in America, likely worried for the lives of the young men in her life.
Ms. Jackson also would know what the Confederate flag had always stood for, even if she was faithful enough to forgive the men and women who wave them in defiance and despite what they mean to so many people in our country. It breaks my heart that her life was bookended by Rebel Yell-enforced segregation on one end and a race-obsessed killer on the other who had gotten his inspiration to murder these worshipers from reading hateful posts by a group that grew out of the mailing list of the old Citizens Council, which began here in Mississippi.
America and the South just came full circle, all. The question now is if we have the will—no, not the courage; that belonged to people who were pistol-whipped and lynched to save us all—to break the circle and step up to higher ground.
Read "Witness in Philadelphia" by Florence Mars and "Attack on Terror" by Don Whitehead for the powerful accounts of the incidents in Neshoba County.