My stepdad, Obbie Riley, was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a place known nationally more for an act of unspeakable violence than for anything else. He turned 2 during the Freedom Summer of 1964, when nearly 1,000 volunteers from up north worked alongside local activists registering Black Mississippians to vote. A week into the project, Klansmen murdered three young civil-rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—who had come to investigate the Ku Klux Klan’s burning of Mount Zion United Methodist Church, where my stepdad grew up worshipping. The violence stuck with him. He left the state after high school to look for work, but 22 years later he returned to his hometown, with history still on his mind.
Now my stepfather is one of a handful of Black folks around town who give informal tours of Philadelphia’s civil-rights history. The pandemic put these tours on hold for a while, but even before COVID, they were irregular, and could be found only by word of mouth. Guides like Obbie don’t have websites, or even Facebook pages. Yet people from all over have managed to reach them—Obbie estimates that he’s given more than 100 tours. Their popularity is understandable in a town where official sources, such as the local museum, are still reluctant to tell the story. Even in this boom time of national memorialization of Black civil-rights history, in Philadelphia, tours like Obbie Riley’s are the only real way to connect to the dark truth of our past.
This fall, on one of my trips back home, I decided to talk with him about that past. I sat at the kitchen counter as he washed dishes. He told me he’s curious about what people—white people—think about the 1964 murders. Obbie, who also serves on the county’s board of supervisors as the only Black person and sole Democrat, has spent his life capturing memories about that time from his elders. He’s inclined to assume that the legacy of the murders doesn’t affect the white population, which makes up about 60 percent of the county, as much as it does the Black folks. But he doesn’t know for sure. No one talks about it, after all.
“I think they made themselves believe that sticking their heads in the ground is a cure,” he said. “We haven’t opened up and talked about it to heal.”
Obbie told me he started doing tours years ago. What happened here is no secret—there are books and movies about it. People who cared about civil-rights history would travel to the church in June for the annual memorial service to commemorate the three civil-rights workers, and many would ask to get better acquainted with the history. Obbie is of the opinion that if something needs to get done, especially something as important as ensuring that the legacy of your community and family doesn’t get erased, you’d better first employ yourself to do something about it. I’d lived in town for years, but I’d never taken his tour. So on a chilly November day, we hopped into his white pickup truck at dusk with his mean little mutt, Rex. We pulled out of the long gravel driveway and drove into history.