June 24, 1964

Why write and share a song about such a dark day? Well, there are some stories that deserve remembrance and telling. And, just knowing about an event and connecting and understanding it on an emotional level are two very different things.

This song was sort of dropped in my lap, so I had to see it through to some completion. It started from a simple song prompt from a Facebook group. The prompt was “pine cone.” Soon after seeing that prompt I was watching American Experience: Freedom Summer, first aired on PBS June 24, 2014. This is the story of when “more than 700 student volunteers from around the country joined organizers and local African Americans in a historic effort to shatter the foundations of white supremacy in Mississippi – then one of the nation’s most viciously racist, segregated states.” The primary focus of the story are the murders of three volunteers: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwermer. James was black, and Andy and “Mickey” were white. In fact, Mickey had been marked for death by the KKK for his participation in Freedom Summer. Maybe, for the KKK, it’s worse to be a white person advocating for and helping the black community work toward equal rights than just being black.

How does this connect to pine cone? The video describes how Andy and Mickey were pulled out of the car and immediately, without hesitation or even conversation, simply shot and killed right there on the side of the road, while James watched and waited in fear for his turn. He ran and was chased into the woods where he was caught and executed. As this was described in the film, I had the image described in the last verse (which involves a pine cone).

The reality of this story is that these murderers included, and then were aided and abetted by local, state, and even federal law enforcement until public outcry finally forced legal action. Without that outcry, these murders would have been left unsolved. This story exemplifies systemic racism.

This story, and other stories that many might prefer we forget or “move past” are important. Finally, individuals like me (comfortable and white) just beginning getting it. I have never known the kind of constant, nagging, and oppressive fear that comes with being black in America–an accumulated trauma, a constant drumbeat, like one’s pounding heartbeat always in the background. When will racism strike next? Will it be subtle, systemic microaggressions that accumulate? Will it be abject discrimination preventing buying a home or getting a job, or might today be the day that it results in my murder?

People like me cannot know this. But we can help us not forget this part of our history (and present). We can help ensure these stories are not forgotten and this history is accurately taught in school. And we can speak up, even when it is uncomfortable. Claiming to not know what to say our how to say it is an excuse to allow systemic racism and white privilege to continue. Say something and engage in the conversation, even if it costs you privilege, comfort, and friendships. Such things based on such a lie aren’t worth it anyway.

There’s one more piece of this story to highlight. Would these particular murders be as infamous and influential to the passing of the Civil Rights act of 1964 if two of the victims were not white boys from outside of Mississippi? According to the NAACP, “From 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of these people that were lynched 3,446 were black. The blacks lynched accounted for 72.7% of the people lynched. These numbers seem large, but it is known that not all of the lynchings were ever recorded. Out of the 4,743 people lynched only 1,297 white people were lynched. That is only 27.3%. Many of the whites lynched were lynched for helping the black or being anti lynching and even for domestic crimes.” How many of these stories of lynchings were lost to history and never solved? This is history that must be preserved and told in order to heal the trauma of systemic racism upon which this country is built.

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