The murders of three young civil rights workers bent on registering black voters during 1964’s “Freedom Summer” still haunts this tiny town in central Mississippi. Jewel Rush McDonald shudders at the thought of the beatings her mother and brother endured at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan five days before the murders. Stanley Dearman bemoans the four decades it took to get even one manslaughter conviction, and only after he badgered state officials in his weekly newspaper. James Young recalls the tension of being the only black pupil in his elementary school class at the time of the murders, when poll taxes and literacy tests helped keep 95% of eligible blacks in Mississippi from voting. After dark in those days, he says, “we were told to be in the house.” But “things have changed in the South,” Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts said June 22, 2009, almost 45 years to the day since the murders. It was one line in the court’s most recent decision on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and though it kept the law largely intact, Roberts warned the act’s days might be numbered.
Eleven days later — as if to make Roberts’ point — Young took office as the first black mayor of Philadelphia (pop. 7,513). The 57-year-old paramedic and pastor seeks re-election this spring — and two white Democrats have switched to the Republican Party to oppose him.
In 2009, James Young became the first black mayor of Philadelphia, Miss.(Photo: Rick Guy for USA TODAY)
Therein lies the paradox facing the Supreme Court next week, when it hears the latest and most significant challenge to the Voting Rights Act passed in the wake of the blood shed here and throughout the South nearly a half-century ago. The law outlawed the types of voting practices that were common in many states and set up legal and regulatory processes to overturn them.
The South indeed has changed; whether it’s changed enough to warrant a major blow to the Voting Rights Act will be decided by the nine high court justices this spring.