Civil Rights Tourism Becoming a Thriving IndustryPublished: January 15, 2009
That the bitterness of the 1960s civil rights movement should now become a thriving tourist industry is a turn of history that interests Ron Loewe, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology.
“Civil rights tourism is certainly a business, but it serves to bring people closer to the struggle,” said Loewe, who joined the university in 2006. “This is a way for people to get an education they never received before.”
It was during his six years as a faculty member at Mississippi State University that Loewe first encountered one of the grimmest landmarks of a bitter time. In the summer of 1964, a time dedicated to voter registration, civil rights workers James Chaney, a 21-year-old black man from Meridian, Mississippi; Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old Jewish anthropology student from New York; and Michael Schwerner, a 24-year-old Jewish organizer for the Congress for Racial Equality, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Miss.
“My wife saw a small article in the Starkville Daily about a ceremony marking the 39th anniversary of the killings, and we decided it would be a good history lesson for our children,” Loewe recalled. “It took us a long time to find the Mt. Zion Methodist Church (a center of civil rights activity outside of Philadelphia, Miss.), since it’s clearly off the beaten path, but once we arrived, the commemoration was very moving. In addition to a professor from Jackson State, a historically black college; local politicians, and relatives of the slain workers; one of the featured speakers was William Winter, a former governor of Mississippi and the founder of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. I was surprised, to say the least, that the governor of Mississippi in 1964, an elderly white man, was such a strong proponent of civil rights.
“Unlike Georgia and Alabama which have had large civil rights museums for many years, and host civil right’s re-enactments such as the crossing of the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., the State of Mississippi is just beginning to acknowledge and memorialize this part of its history,” he said. “Since 2005 visitors to Neshoba County – infamous for the murder of civil rights workers Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney – have been able to obtain copies of the African-American Heritage Driving Tour, a glossy, 12-page pamphlet which directs tourists to nine points of interest associated with the 1964 killings including the Bogue Chitto swamp where the FBI found Michael Schwerner’s station wagon two days after the murders.” Loewe’s interest in civil rights tourism resulted in an article which is under consideration by the American Anthropologist entitled, “Civil Rights Tourism in Mississippi: Openings, Closures, Redemption and Remuneration.”
Formed on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Neshoba County murders, the Philadelphia Coalition – a consortium of civic leaders, businessmen, housewives and NAACP members – not only helped to organize a major commemorative event in 2004 which included the current Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, and many prominent politicians, but pressured the state’s attorney to bring charges against Edgar Ray Killen, the Klan leader who masterminded the 1964 killings. He was found guilty of three counts of manslaughter on June 21, 2005, the 41st anniversary of the crime. His appeal was denied and his sentence of three times 20 years in prison was upheld in 2007 by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
“I was very interested in attending the trial, but I knew I would never get into the small courthouse in Philadelphia, Miss., if I didn’t have a press credential, so I contacted Cleveland Jewish News. They knew my father since he occasionally published humorous pieces in their paper and they gave me a credential. I was standing in line with reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post with this unimpressive credential,” he recalled, “but it enabled me to witness a fascinating trial. It was also the only time I’ve ever gotten paid for writing an article, $75 for a thousand words, and $15 for three pictures.”
Loewe sees the Philadelphia Coalition as a positive example of how opponents can learn to work together.
“I was surprised and heartened by the coming together of many different groups. Housewives, teachers, clerks and other ordinary citizens joined together with members of the Mississippi NAACP, local civil rights activists and the chamber of commerce,” he said. “Local businesses were interested in the commemoration as a way to change the image of their state and the county as a haven for the Klan following movies like `Mississippi Burning.’ They were, of course, interested in improving business; however, it would be wrong to ignore the Christian underpinnings of civil rights tourism, and the need for redemption. Oral and written accounts by coalition members and other residents continually emphasize the stigma and embarrassment of being from Neshoba County and the need to be cleansed of the community’s sin.”
The significance of civil rights tourism lies in its ability to wake up Americans to painful truths. “When I spoke to members of the Philadelphia Coalition, many reported that it was forbidden to talk about the murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney when they were growing up,” he said. “One member of the coalition recalled that when she raised the topic in school, she was told ‘we don’t talk about that.’ Now they do. By participating in the commemoration, they were able to get something off their chests that had been weighing them down for a long time.”
In addition to his interest in civil rights tourism, Loewe is completing an ethnography of the Maya community he lived in 1990. The book is titled Making Mayas into Mestizos: Nationalism, Modernity and its Discontents. The book is due out this year. He has also been involved in the revitalization of the Center for Peace and Social Justice, formerly known as the Peter Carr Center, and is leading a delegation to Venezuela this summer. He received his B.A. from Earlham College, his M.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.