‘Mississippi Burning’ Town Elects Its First African-American Mayor

More than 40 years after the brutal Ku Klux Klan lynching that made it famous, a Mississippi town has elected its first African-American mayor.

In 1964, the small town of Philadelphia, Miss., made national headlines for an act of brutal violence that occurred there: members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered three young civil rights activists who had travelled to the town to investigate the burning of a church that supported equal rights for African-Americans.

Though at least 18 Klan members, including a town sheriff, were allegedly involved with planning the murders, only seven were found guilty in the 1967 trial, and none served more than six years in prison. The FBI investigation received significant attention, and in 1988, a movie loosely based on the the case, Mississippi Burning, was released. After years of public and government investigation, another ringleader in the murders, 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen, was finally brought to trial in 2005, and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

More immediately, though, the violent killing brought the civil rights movement to a national platform, and widespread outrage over the incident helped pave the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, signed into action that year by President Lyndon Johnson. The groundbreaking law outlawed racial segregation in schools, employment, and all public places.

Now, more than 40 years later, the town of Philadelphia has made a true transformation: Last Tuesday, James A. Young, a minister and former county supervisor, became the town’s first African-American mayor.

“This shows a complete change of attitude and a desire to move forward,” Young, who was the only black student in his sixth-grade class when the town was de-segregated, told The New York Times.

The town still has a strong white majority, with 56 percent white residents to 40 percent black and 2 percent Native American. And while Young only took a narrow lead over his white opponent, he believes that the town’s infamous racism is now firmly in the past. “There was no real negativism in this campaign,” he said. “There was no door slammed in my face.”

“When I campaigned, the signs on the doors said, ‘Welcome,’ and I actually felt welcome.”

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