Last Monday, January 20, was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, during which people in Mississippi and the rest of the nation remember Dr. King and the cause to which he gave his life and for which he lost his life – Civil Rights for all Americans. Yet, it is not only Dr. King we remember on this day. He was a great man who was the face and voice of a great movement, but the Civil Rights Movement’s true greatness was that ordinary citizens from various classes, professions, races, and states joined together for a common cause. The theme for the 2014 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration in Meridian was “Fifty Years Later: Honoring the Leaders of Today, While Remembering the Warriors and Dreamers of Yesterday” and specifically honored James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, the three Civil Rights workers murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  What most people in Meridian did not honor or remember on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a small, two-story commercial building at 2505 Fifth Street in downtown Meridian, the Fielder & Brooks Drug Store, also known as the COFO Building, headquarters of the Civil Rights Movement in Meridian during Freedom Summer and the place where Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner worked to achieve Civil Rights for all Americans. Few people in Meridian, and certainly few elsewhere, realize that this building will soon be demolished by the City of Meridian.
Fielder & Brooks Drug Store/COFO Building began its existence rather uneventfully. The building was constructed in 1879 by L. Scully, noted as the architect and builder on a plaque located on the Fifth Street corner of the structure. Scully was the architect builder for various other Meridian commercial structures constructed around 1880. The National Register of Historic Places registration form prepared for the Meridian Downtown Historic District gives a good overview of the building and surrounding area:
The western part of the historic district has a long historical association with the African-American community. This part of the historic district, located around the intersections of 25th Avenue with Fourth and Fifth Streets, has served as the center of the black commercial district from the turn of the 20th century up to the present day. Once located in this area was the Con Sheehan Block, built circa 1870. This structure housed the first courthouse in Meridian after the removal of the seat of government from Marion in 1870 and as such witnessed the Meridian Riot Trials of March 1871. The riots were caused by the trial of three white men accused of “causing trouble” with African-Americans. Some historians have marked this occurrence as the beginning of the end of the Reconstruction era of American history. The portion of this block that was historically referred to as the Con-Sheehan Block was destroyed by fire August 3, 1996. The remaining building of this block, attributed to Con-Sheehan and L. Scully, was toppled by Hurricane Ivan in June of 2004. Other landmark buildings still extant in this part of town are the Fielder and Brooks Drug Store, built ca. 1879 and located at 2505 Fifth Street, which housed the local COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) offices on its second floor in the 1960s. 
The building was purchased by Doctors Fielder and Brooks in the late 1940s. They established Meridian’s first drug store for the city’s black residents in 1934, who previously were at the whim of white businesses and residents for access to much needed medicine.  Until 1964, 2505 Fifth Street was indistinguishable from other nearby buildings in its architecture, history, and importance.
In January 1964, COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) began establishing a headquarters and strong presence in Meridian. COFO was unique to Mississippi; the challenge of bringing Civil Rights to Mississippi was so great that the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) joined to create COFO, an umbrella under which various Civil Rights organizations could gather, despite their very prominent differences. Albert Jones, one of Meridian’s wealthiest and most prominent black real estate owners, helped Matteo Suarez, COFO coordinator for Mississippi’s Fourth Congressional District, acquire COFO’s headquarters – five rooms in the second floor above Fielder & Brooks Drug Store; Dr. Alvin L. Fielder’s assistance to the Movement came with the rented space. Someone was still needed to run the headquarters and build up the Movement in the Meridian area. Since Albert Jones was a supporter of more militant Civil Rights organizations (unlike most wealthy Mississippi blacks, who supported the NAACP or SCLC), the COFO headquarters would be led by two white CORE members from New York City: Michael and Rita Schwerner. 
Rita Schwerner described to writer William Bradford Huie the five rooms COFO would occupy when Michael and she arrived in Meridian on January 19, 1964:
We reached Meridian about five P.M. on Sunday. We parked the Volkswagen on the street and climbed the crumbling stairs. Mickey unlocked the doors and we walked through those five cold, empty, dirty, and decaying rooms. But we were both very happy. We didn’t notice the cold, the dirt, the decay, or the emptiness. We only saw the rooms as we hoped to make them: colorful, filled with books and the sounds of music and happy people working to become better and more useful citizens of Mississippi and the United States. 
The Schwerners would become more familiar with the COFO Building than nearly any other Civil Rights workers. Housing was a problem for the couple; they would often be forced to sleep in the COFO Building, bathe in the nearby Young Hotel, and eat in Albert Jones’s local café. Huie describes the couple’s living conditions at the COFO Building:
So there were many nights during January and February when Mickey and Rita could find no home willing to receive them. They slept in the Community Center, Mickey on the floor and Rita on a cot. There was no heat, and the temperature sometimes dropped below freezing. Since the doors to the Center could not be locked securely, Mickey depended on his faith in Man for protection. 
Despite the dangers and difficulties, Civil Rights workers in Meridian came together to make the COFO Building something other than a cold, dirty, dilapidated structure. Over the Winter, Spring, and into the Freedom Summer of 1964, Civil Rights workers, both native black Meridians like James Earl Chaney and white Northerners like the Schwerners and, later on, Andrew Goodman, transformed the COFO headquarters into what Rita Schwerner imagined when she first walked into the building, a place that resembled Dr. King’s vision for America. Meridian Civil Rights workers faced harsh reality and, for many, an end to their idealism when Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were murdered on June 21, 1964. The COFO Building was the last place where Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were seen alive by their fellow Civil Rights workers. Though Freedom Summer continued across Mississippi and Civil Rights activism continued in Meridian for years, Fielder & Brooks Drug Store would cease being COFO’s headquarters, those five, second story rooms abandoned when COFO moved to another building (now demolished) across from Meridian City Hall.
Fielder & Brooks Drug Store eventually closed in 1984 as Dr. Fielder became too elderly to manage it, and the COFO Building was largely forgotten.  The surrounding area declined as black-owned businesses closed, some due to competition from suburbs, others ironically due to competition from white-owned businesses that blacks finally had the right to patronize. However, before 2010 the building’s historical importance began to be appreciated, much like other Civil Rights sites. As I pointed out here on Preservation in Mississippi three years ago, in the post “Civil Rights Sites from Charles E. Cobb Jr.’s ‘On the Road to Freedom’,” Movement veteran Charles E. Cobb, Jr. listed only one Meridian site in his book, the Fielder & Brooks Drug Store/COFO Building, although he was largely forced to do that due to the demolition of all of Meridian’s other major sites. Many Civil Rights Movement veterans and Meridian citizens, such as Gail Falk, Mark Levy, and Judge Larry Primeaux, appalled at the disinvestment plaguing most of downtown Meridian, began calling for the restoration of COFO’s headquarters. Roscoe Jones, Sr., another Movement veteran who worked as student organizer in the COFO Building, student leader in the Meridian Freedom School, and co-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Youth Convention in 1964, organized The Freedom ’64 Project with the goal of restoring the COFO Building as a Civil Rights museum.
2011 looked like a promising year for the COFO Building’s restoration. Mississippi Heritage Trust (MHT) named Fielder & Brooks Drug Store/COFO Building as one of the ten Most Endangered Historic Places on their biennial list.  Meridian Main Street, on behalf of The Freedom ’64 Project, was awarded a $2,307 grant by the National Trust for Historic Preservation from the David K. Thorne Intervention Fund, which was used for a structural assessment of the building.  In addition, MDAH’s Mississippi Civil Rights Historical Sites grant program awarded the maximum allowable grant, $210,000, to The Freedom ’64 Project “to stabilize the roof, windows, and doors, and restore the exterior of the building.”  It looked as if the building was going to be a preservation success story, much like the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, currently being restored using Mississippi Civil Rights Historical Sites grant funds.
But looks can be deceiving, and if things had worked out back in 2011, I would not be writing about the COFO Building’s impending demolition in 2014. According to public records, The Freedom ’64 Project refused to sign a maintenance covenant associated with receiving Mississippi Civil Rights Historical Sites grant funds. MDAH requires that “grant recipients must enter into a twenty-five-year preservation and maintenance covenant that safeguards the state’s investment by providing MDAH oversight of alterations to the building during that time.”  Also, The Freedom ’64 Project was only able to secure a long-term lease of the COFO Building; the group never actually took ownership of the structure. The building’s owner (indicated by Lauderdale County property appraisal to be Veldore F. Young) intransigently refused either to sell the COFO Building or make any repairs, even after the roof began failing and the walls developed cracks. Through 2012 and 2013, the COFO Building deteriorated further. The City of Meridian’s demolition plans for the building were unveiled in early January 2014 after an engineer certified the building as unsalvageable, though buildings in much worse shape have been restored in cities with more appreciation for historic preservation.  Despite protests from Roscoe Jones, Sr., last week the Meridian Historic Preservation Commission, as they are always wont to do, approved the city’s demolition request.  Unless something extraordinary happens immediately, Fielder & Brooks Drug Store/COFO Building will very soon, for the first time since 1879, not anchor the corner of Fifth Street and Twenty-Fifth Avenue.
Meridian city officials state that they want to memorialize the Civil Rights Movement and the activities that occurred at the COFO Building in some form after the building’s demolition. Yet, is there any memorial or monument more fitting and appropriate to the Civil Rights Movement than the wood floors that Mickey Schwerner slept on during the Winter of 1964, or those five rooms “colorful, filled with books and the sounds of music and happy people” where James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and many others worked to achieve Civil Rights, or the storefront where Doctors Fielder and Brooks brought medical supplies to a community that had forever been denied quality medicine? What memorial or monument could be more powerful than the COFO Building itself? Or perhaps the COFO Building’s demolition is appropriate. What better way to commemorate Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner, and all other Meridian Civil Rights activists than to have a backhoe rip through the COFO Building, smashing bricks, cast iron, and glass to the ground. The wood floors and formerly colorful rooms bulldozed into piles of rubble, loaded onto dump trucks, and hauled off to Pine Ridge Landfill. What could be a more fitting memorial or monument to the sacrifices of Meridian’s black community before and during the Civil Rights Movement than blocks of vacant lots with a few bricks and concrete foundations poking through the unmaintained weeds. I am sure Martin Luther King, Jr. only dreamt of this during his nightmares.
. Ida Brown, “MLK Parade/Celebration to highlight 50th anniversary of civil rights workers’ murders,” The Meridian Star, January 15, 2014, Accessed January 19, 2014, http://www.meridianstar.com/local/x1427962793/MLK-Parade-Celebration-to-highlight-50th-anniversary-of-civil-rights-workers-murders.
. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Meridian Downtown Historic District, by Ford, Linda, Section 8, Page 34.
. Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Historic Resources Inventory, Fact Sheet for the Fielder & Brooks Drug Store/COFO offices, Accessed January 26, 2014, http://www.apps.mdah.ms.gov/public/prop.aspx?id=16608&view=facts&y=728.
. William Bradford Huie, Three Lives for Mississippi (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), 44.
. Ibid., 45.
. Ibid., 47, 50.
. Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage of The University of Southern Mississippi, “Oral history with Alvin L. Fielder, Sr.,” http://www.lib.usm.edu/legacy/spcol/coh/cohfieldera.html.
. Mississippi Heritage Trust, “2011 10 Most Endangered Historic Places,” http://www.mississippiheritage.com/10Most2011.html#Fielder.
. “Grant to restore historic building,” The Meridian Star, January 17, 2012, Accessed January 26, 2014, http://www.meridianstar.com/local/x1267395383/Grant-to-preserve-historic-building.
. Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Press Release, “More than $2 Million Awarded to Civil Rights Sites by MDAH,” http://mdah.state.ms.us/admin/news/chpgrantwin11.html.
. Andrea Williams, “COFO Building Update,” WTOK, January 14, 2014, Accessed January 19, 2014, http://www.wtok.com/home/headlines/COFO-Building-Development-240118331.html.
. Andrea Williams, “COFO Building Demolition Response,” WTOK, January 16, 2014, Accessed January 19, 2014, http://www.wtok.com/home/headlines/COFO-Building-Demolition-Response-240642281.html.
“COFO Building Demolition Gets Final Approval,” WTOK, January 23, 2014, Accessed January 26, 2014, http://www.wtok.com/home/headlines/COFO-Building-Demolition-Gets-Final-Approval-241730091.html.