Murder of Civil Rights Workers While Registering Voters Shocks Nation in 1964
Reading the recent articles about voter suppression reminded me of one of the most offensive and evil acts in our history. Three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964 in Neshoba County, Miss., while doing voting rights work. Their deaths outraged the nation and helped tip the scales so Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The murders of James Chaney, a 21-year-old black man from Meridian, Miss.; Andrew Goodman, 20, a white anthropology student from New York; and Michael Schwerner, 24, white CORE organizer and former social worker also from New York, was a national news story. It took place during what was called the "Freedom Summer," dedicated to voter education and voter registration in the south. Blacks in Mississippi, and throughout the South, faced laws that resulted in racial segregation and had been essentially disfranchised.
Sit-ins, non-violent demonstrations and Freedom Rides were taken by national civil rights groups in the 1950s. Many white volunteers from northern states also helped with organizing efforts and supported actions
According to the book, We Are Not Afraid-The Story of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi, “Outsiders had never been welcome in Neshoba County, whether they were Yankee cavalry, carpetbaggers, or federal revenuers ... The civil rights movement—the threat of invasion by "outside agitators"—had powerfully stirred ancient hatreds. Race "mixers," "n----lovers," and their FBI hand holders were the biggest threats to "the southern way of life" since the Civil War.”
Officials of the state of Mississippi and local groups such as the Ku Klux Klan resented these efforts to change their society of white supremacy, and activists worked at high risk.
In fact, two young black men, Henry Hezekiah Dee, a civil rights activist, and his friend Charles Eddie Moore, had been missing in Mississippi since May of 1964, Their beaten bodies were found bound to an engine block and railroad rails in a river in Warren County. Most suspected the Klan. In 2007, James Ford Seale was tried and convicted of the kidnapping of the two men. They were beaten by several Klansmen and drowned in the river.
James Chaney was the eldest in a family of five children. In 1963, Chaney joined the Congress of Racial Equality. Andrew Goodman was one of three sons. He graduated from Walden School and attended the University of Wisconsin for a year before transferring to Queens College in New York City. At Queens College he majored in anthropology.
Michael Schwerner, while at Cornell University, integrated the school's chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. Schwerner had come to Mississippi in January 1964 with his wife Rita after having been hired as a CORE field worker.
The three men headed to Philadelphia, Miss., 50 miles away in Neshoba County, in order to inspect the ruins of Mount Zion United Methodist Church. The church, a meeting place for civil rights groups, had been burned just five days earlier. Neshoba County was known as a dangerous area for civil rights workers. The County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price were found to be members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, as were many other residents.
Late that afternoon, Price, the county deputy, stopped the blue Ford carrying the trio. He arrested Chaney for allegedly driving 35 miles per hour over the speed limit. He also booked Goodman and Schwerner "for investigation" when he took them back to the county jail.
Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney were each denied telephone calls during their time at the jail. Their co-workers made attempts to find the three men, but when they called the Neshoba County jail, the secretary followed instructions to deny that the workers were being held there. During the hours they were held incommunicado in jail, Price notified his Klan associate Edgar Ray Killen, who assembled fellow Klan members and planned how to kill the three workers.
After the Klan ambush was set up on the road back to Meridian, Chaney was fined $20, and the three men were ordered to leave the county. Price followed them to the edge of town, where he pulled them over, sounding his police siren. He held them until the Klan murder squad arrived. The KKK took the three men to an isolated spot where they shot Schwerner and Goodman, and beat Chaney before shooting him to death. The Klan drove the CORE car into a swamp and set it on fire. They buried the bodies in an earthen dam, using a bulldozer to cover them.
The national uproar caused by the disappearance of the civil rights workers led President Lyndon Johnson to force J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to investigate the case. Hoover's antipathy to civil rights groups caused him to resist until Johnson used indirect threats of political reprisals. One hundred and fifty FBI agents were sent to Neshoba county to investigate. During the investigation, searchers including Navy divers and the FBI discovered the bodies of at least seven other Mississippi blacks, whose disappearances over the past several years had not attracted attention outside of their local communities.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had some thoughts about Philadelphia, Mississippi, “This is a terrible town, the worst I’ve seen. This is a complete reign of terror here.”
During the search, Mississippi officials were resentful. The Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey said, "They're just hiding and trying to cause a lot of bad publicity for this part of the state." Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson dismissed concern by stating that "they could be in Cuba".
For a while, the trail went cold. When the FBI offered a $25,000 reward for news of the workers' whereabouts, a break came in the case. It is also believed that the FBI hired members of the Mafia to help track down the location of the bodies. After paying at least one participant in the crime for details, the FBI found the victims' bodies on August 4. They were buried in an earthen dam on Olen Burrage's Old Jolly Farm, six miles southwest of Philadelphia, Miss. Schwerner and Goodman had each been shot once in the heart; Chaney had been beaten and shot three times. It took 44 days to find the civil rights workers.
Sheriff Lawrence Rainey being escorted by two FBI agents to the Federal Court house in Meridian, Mississippi; October 1964.
However, justice was obstructed when Mississippi officials refused to prosecute the killers for murder, a state crime. The U.S. Justice Department later charged 18 individuals under the 1870 U.S. Force Act with conspiring to deprive the three of their civil rights (by murder). They indicted Sheriff Rainey, Deputy Sheriff Price and 16 other men.
Seven men were found guilty on October 20, 1967. Sentences ranged from 3 to 10 years. None served more than six years. Sheriff Rainey was among those acquitted.
For much of the next four decades, no legal action was taken. However, journalist Jerry Mitchell, an award-winning investigative reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, circulation 75,000, wrote extensively about the case in the past decade. Mitchell had helped secure convictions in several other high-profile Civil Rights Era murder cases, including the murders of Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer, and the Birmingham Church Bombing.
Mitchell developed new evidence, found new witnesses, and pressured the state to take action. Barry Bradford, a high school teacher at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., and three of his students, Allison Nichols, Sarah Siegel, and Brittany Saltiel, joined Mitchell's efforts.
Together the student-teacher team produced a documentary for the National History Day contest. It presented important new evidence and compelling reasons to reopen the case. Partially by using evidence developed by Bradford and the students, Mitchell was able to determine the identity of "Mr. X", the mystery informer who had helped the FBI discover the bodies and end the conspiracy of the Klan in 1964.
Mitchell's investigation and the high school students' work in creating congressional pressure, national media attention and a taped conversation with Killen prompted action. In 2004, on the 40th anniversary of the murders, a multi-ethnic group of citizens in Philadelphia, Miss., issued a call for justice. More than 1,500 people, including civil rights leaders and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, joined them to voice their desire to re-open the case.
On January 6, 2005, a Neshoba County grand jury indicted Edgar Ray Killen on three counts of murder. When the Mississippi Attorney General prosecuted the case, it was the first time the state took action against the perpetrators. Rita Bender, Michael Schwerner's widow, testified in the trial.
Afterward she said to the press, "You're treating this trial as the most important trial of the civil rights movement because two of these three men were white," she said. "That means we all have a discussion about racism in this country that has to continue. And if this trial is a way for you to all acknowledge that, for us to all acknowledge that and to have that discussion openly, then this trial has meaning."
On June 21, 2005, a jury convicted Edgar Ray Killen on three counts of manslaughter; he was described as the man who planned and directed the killing of the civil rights workers. Killen, then 80 years old, was sentenced to three consecutive terms of 20 years in prison. He appealed, claiming that no jury of his peers would have convicted him at the time on the evidence presented. The Mississippi Supreme Court confirmed the verdict in 2007.
Stained glass window honoring the three men in Sage Chapel, Cornell University
Reporter Mitchell, a Texas native, said his interest in the civil rights era began after he viewed the 1989 film, Mississippi Burning, based loosely on the Chaney-Schwerner-Goodman killings.
Mitchell is credited with reopening investigations that led to the conviction of Byron De La Beckwith in the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi field secretary of the N.A.A.C.P.; the conviction of Bobby Frank Cherry in the Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls that year; the conviction of Samuel H. Bowers, former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, in the 1966 firebomb attack that killed another N.A.A.C.P. official, Vernon Dahmer Sr.; and to the only homicide prosecution in the “Mississippi Burning” case.
“There are four suspects still alive in that case,” Mitchell said. “I want to get on it, and time matters. Each year, there are fewer people still around who were involved in these cases.”
Mitchell recently was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” grant to supports his efforts, and is called the South’s Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter who has brought many killers to justice since World War Two.
Visit your local library for these resources:
Mississippi Burning (DVD)
by Joel Norst, (1988).
The "Mississippi Burning" Civil Rights Murder Conspiracy Trial: A Headline Court Case
by Harvey Fireside, (2002).
The Mississippi Burning Trial: A Primary Source Account
by Bill Scheppler, (2003).
Three Lives for Mississippi
by William Bradford Huie, (1965).
We Are Not Afraid
by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, (1988).
Witness in Philadelphia
by Florence Mars, (1977).