Trying to ‘right’ civil wrongs

Bill Miles

At the beginning of the 2004 Legislative Session, Speaker Bill McCoy appointed me Chairman of the Committee on Transportation for the Mississippi House of Representatives. In that capacity a lot of matters came for consideration. I was particularly interested in building more 4-lane roads but I also was passionate about maintaining those already constructed under the historic 1987 Highway Program. Less important to me was the naming of memorial highways and recognizing historic markers. This requires legislative action and generally is considered non-controversial. But by the time the 2005 session had begun a piece of legislation was being shepherded by Senator Gloria Williamson of Neshoba County (Philadelphia). During my time in elected public service juries in separate cases had convicted Byron DeLa Beckwick for killing Civil Rights leader Meadgar Evers and Preacher Edgar Ray Killen in the deaths of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County in the 1960s. These trials had created national attention long after the time they should have been enacted. The ‘Reconciliation Committee’ in Philadelphia spearheaded a movement to memorialize a portion of Mississippi Highway 19 for the civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. A separate bill was introduced to honor Emmett Till. I contend the Chicago teenager murdered in the Mississippi Delta posthumously pricked the American conscience accelerating our civil rights movement. An Ole Miss classmate, Stanley Dearman, the retired editor of the Neshoba Democrat newspaper, was a member of the Reconciliation group. Standard procedures for memorial legislation and similar acts were to have supporting resolutions from local governments. The City of Philadelphia and the Neshoba County Board of Supervisors passed such prior to the 2004 session. Some public interest waned. Therefore it did not come to Jackson until the 2005 session. Senator Williamson informed me she had her ‘ducks in a row’ on the Senate side. I heard from Dearman, who has since died. I assured him and Senator Williamson I sympathized and would be in favor of advancing the measure. When it got to me, I gave it to a sub- committee chairman to handle. I expected mere formality. To my surprise when the House Calendar revealed the measure, a representative came to me in the House Chambers. He questioned validity of the resolutions. “Listen, fella, I don’t think you want to go there,” I responded. He wandered away. A few days later I got a call from Speaker McCoy to come to his office. When I arrived two legislators, the one mentioned above, and one who served nearby were present. Speaker McCoy said, “Mr. Chairman, these gentlemen have questions about the Civil Rights’ Workers Memorial Highway. What do you say?” “Mr. Speaker, this chairman will not be responsible for killing that legislation,” I announced. “You heard the Chairman, gentlemen,” the Speaker said. The meeting abruptly ended. Several similar memorials including the Till legislation were lumped together. It passed it out of my committee. Then I thought about the fact that my sub-committee chair came from a county known to have been home to some KKK members accused in a violent attack in Hattiesburg. As I was entering the Chambers on the day for final action, I encountered my sub-committee chair. “Listen,” I said. “If you are uncomfortable handling the memorial legislation today, I’ll simply call it up and pass it myself.” “Would you?" He asked. The House Journal records for posterity that on March 2, 2005 from the Well of the House the Gentleman from Itawamba (I) called the bill up, explained it, and moved for its passage. Not a ‘no’ vote was recorded. The two representatives from the Speaker’s Office initially voted ‘present’. One quickly recanted his vote to “for”. Miss. Hwy. 49E in Leflore and Tallahatchie counties became the Emmett Till Memorial Highway and Mississippi 19 between Philadelphia and Meridian is known as the Chaney, Goodman Schwerner Memorial Highway. Hopefully my children, grandchildren, great grands and future generations will say that in that year their one-time patriarch was on the ‘right side of history’ .

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