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Mills: U.S. needs a civil rights cemetery

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964 -- The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America."

This year's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday reminds us that it's not just King we are honoring. We are also honoring the thousands of Americans who were foot soldiers in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

King's place in American history has become secure. The new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the Mall in Washington means that in the future, millions of Americans who only know King from books and video will link him with presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

But how we remember those who participated in the civil rights movement that King, among others, led is a different story. The majority of civil rights participants are in danger of being forgotten with the passage of time.

It's a fate unworthy of their collective accomplishment. The 20th century struggle for civil rights constitutes our second civil war. Those who were part of that long war deserve a resting place of their own that honors them as we do our military veterans.

The time has come to create a National Civil Rights Memorial Cemetery. In retrospect the need for such a cemetery became clear in 1964 during the height of the civil rights movement when three civil rights workers -- James Chaney, a young black Mississippian, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both white New Yorkers -- were murdered because of their participation in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the three-month effort to register voters and start freedom schools in the state deemed most hostile to racial integration.

After the bodies of the three men were recovered by the FBI from an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss., the families of Schwerner and Chaney wanted to have the two friends buried side by side in Mississippi. But the black undertaker in charge of Chaney's funeral, fearing he would lose his license, refused to handle Schwerner's remains, and no white undertaker was willing to transport Schwerner's body to a black cemetery for burial.

We've come a long way from the racism of 1964, but what has not changed is that the veterans of the civil rights movement who have died lie separated from each other in cemeteries across the country. And more from this rapidly aging group are about to meet the same fate, unless we act soon.

The national Civil War cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa., provides a model for what a National Civil Rights Memorial Cemetery might look like. Gettysburg was designed by its planner, William Saunders of the Department of Agriculture, so that every Union grave, regardless of the rank of the soldier it contains, is of roughly equal importance.

A modern version of Saunders' arrangement would speak to the deepest values of the civil rights movement. Such a cemetery would make no distinction between the movement's generals and its foot soldiers. There would be room for anyone who sat in at a lunch counter, took a freedom ride or taught in a freedom school. Commitment, not fame, would be the criterion for admission.

Those for whom joining the civil rights movement was one of the defining acts of their lives would certainly take comfort in such a resting place. It would allow them to be remembered with a solemnity different from that embodied in a civil rights museum or memorial, which invariably depends on the work of an architect. Such a final resting place, marked by row upon row of headstones stretching as far as the eye can see, would also be an important reminder to future generations of the breadth of the civil rights movement -- how much it depended on ordinary Americans behaving in extraordinary ways.