Indiana: Civil rights activists remember the movement

By Jaclyn Youhana

The Journal Gazette

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) -- George Smith has been in jail more times than he can count.

It's a fact he says with a smile and a sort of pride.

Before moving to Fort Wayne in 1967, Smith and his wife, Louise, were soldiers of sorts in their hometown of Meridian, Miss., fighting a war for equal treatment.

The Smiths were civil rights activists in the South during the 1960s, when black men and women were often thrown in jail for "official" reasons such as speeding, but everyone knew it was because they were black during a decade when and in a state where it was not a good thing to be black.

Today, George, 67, and Louise, 66, are members of the Martin Luther King Jr. Club in Fort Wayne. They lead the club-sponsored bus trip every June to Mississippi and other Southern civil rights states -- to stand on the dusty street where their friends were murdered, to visit the grave of a fallen peer, to remember the events that turned Mississippi into something that better resembled another world than a united state of America.

When Smith was a boy, he visited the Meridian segregated hospital -- where he was born in the basement -- and decided he wanted to work there one day.

"When I got old enough, I got hired in that hospital as an orderly," he says. "The hospital gave me an award for employee of the month."

Shortly after Smith received his award, he was arrested while picketing at a grocery store. His name was in the newspaper, and the next day, the hospital supervisor called him into the office.

"You got another award for me?" he remembers asking, and the supervisor replied, "No. We didn't know you were part of the movement."

And with that, the employee of the month was fired.

Many civil rights activists could not hold down jobs because employers were afraid to keep them on staff, and George Smith found himself involved full time with the movement in 1964.

The summer of 1964 was known to Mississippi civil rights activists as Freedom Summer. Students from the North would train to come to the state and urge blacks to register to vote. Though they had the legal right to vote, whites made it difficult to register, with ridiculous tests and taxes and forms, says Larry Lee, a white local business owner and civil rights expert who went on his first MLK bus trip last summer. He says that a voter registrar could ask, "How many soap bubbles in a bar of soap?"

Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were two white students from New York in Mississippi for Freedom Summer. Schwerner served as project director for the Congress of Racial Equality, says Smith, who was a CORE staffer. James Chaney, a black man, was Schwerner's assistant. Goodman was in Mississippi on his first day of Freedom Summer.

CORE decided to send a delegation to Mount Zion Methodist Church near Philadelphia, Miss., to investigate the church's burning. It had agreed to be a voter registration site, and the Ku Klux Klan burned it down in retaliation. All that remained was some charred hymnals, the church bell and the roof, which had turned into a twisted piece of metal, according to the book, "We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi."

CORE decided Schwerner and Chaney would go on the investigation because of their leadership roles. They would bring Goodman, because he was new to Freedom Summer. They decided that Smith would not go, Lee says, because if too many blacks were in the group, the chances of being harassed increased.

The three workers disappeared on June 21, 1964.

That night, CORE called the Philadelphia police station in search of their friends, says Louise Smith, who volunteered with the movement but did not get involved full time -- should something happen to her husband, she would stay out of jail and the newspapers to care for their two children.

The officer on the other line responded, "If you wanted those niggers, you should have kept them in Meridian."

Blacks often went missing from Mississippi, and officials did not look for them, saying that they must have run away from home, Louise Smith says. On the search for the three men, workers found five black bodies in the river.

"They just threw them back," she says.

However, two of the three missing CORE men came from affluent white families from the North, and there was pressure on the system to find the bodies.

"If James Chaney had been by himself, we'd never have known what happened to them," George Smith says.

The three bodies were found that August in a shallow grave. Schwerner and Goodman died of a single gunshot to the head. David Spain, the New York pathologist who examined Chaney's body, compared Chaney's shattered jaw, arms and skull to the injuries one might receive in an airplane crash, according to "We Are Not Afraid."

George Smith remembers being at Chaney's memorial. He sat behind Chaney's brother, Ben, who was sobbing.

"I was in the church. I was sitting right behind him," he remembers. "I was trying to just hold everything in and not cry, be a man. But I'm only a man. I'm one of the last people to see James Chaney. We saw them leave."

This is one of two reasons the Smiths make the bus trip to the south every June.

The second: Six of the 22 men involved in the killings are still alive, and they have never been charged with murder, George Smith says.

The Smiths moved to Fort Wayne in the late 1960s because George Smith had such a hard time finding a job, and his sister lived in town.

They have gone on the bus trip for years, though when it started, it was not part of a national event; the Smiths would take their children.

Then, when they were old enough, they took their grandchildren.

"We wanted our children to visit Chaney's grave," Louise Smith says. "We wanted them to know what black people had to go through just to be able to vote."

Today, the Smiths lead a trip for the local MLK Club, and it is open to the public. Last year, 65 went on the trip, says Lee, the white business owner who plans to go again this year. The itinerary changes, but two stops stay consistent: Rock Cut Road, where Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were killed; and Chaney's grave. They do not stop at Schwerner and Goodman's graves, as the men are burned in New York. Schwerner's parents had hoped to bury their son next to Chaney, but the cemetery was segregated.

Chaney's headstone has been vandalized so many times that a steel support holds it up. Near the top of the marker is a place where his photo once was. It is missing; it had been shot out.

"They won't let him rest," George Smith says, "even in death."

Published: Tue, May 31, 2011

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