June 21 was the anniversary of an important and tragic event in the struggle for social justice in America—the murder of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. Their story reminds us that before young white people took to the streets in unprecedented numbers in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in protest to the police killings of George Floyd and other African-Americans and People of Color, an earlier generation put their lives on the line in the segregationist South where the Ku Klux Klan still terrorized with near impunity.
They were fewer in number than today’s young activists who have taken to the streets in every corner of the country including small towns and white suburbs where they were totally unexpected. The Freedom Riders and voting rights activists of the ‘60’s came mostly from Northern university enclaves and were often red blanket babies and frequently Jewish. My own best friend from high school, Jon Gordon went down in the summer of 1967 and thankfully returned safely. I wished then that I had gone with him instead of spending the summer washing dishes at a Skokie Howard Johnson’s.
Many of us of a certain age still have vivid snowy black and white TV images stuck in our heads keeping alive the memory of the murders of those three young civil rights activists in the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner.
It still made news 52 years later in 2016 when Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood announced an end to the active Federal and State investigations into the 1964 killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi. The announcement came just days after the death of Judge Marcus D. Gordon, who oversaw the 2005 murder trial at which Edgar Ray Killen, a Ku Klux Klansman and Baptist preacher who was believed to be the prime mastermind of the crime was finally convicted. Hood told reporters:
The FBI, my office and other law enforcement agencies have spent decades chasing leads, searching for evidence and fighting for justice for the three young men who were senselessly murdered...It has been a thorough and complete investigation. I am convinced that during the last 52 years, investigators have done everything possible under the law to find those responsible and hold them accountable; however, We have determined that there is no likelihood of any additional convictions. Absent any new information presented to the FBI or my office, this case will be closed.
The news came as no surprise to any of the victims’ families. After so many years most, if not all of the others involved in the crime are likely dead—Killen turned 91 in prison—as are almost any witnesses. The likelihood that new physical evidence may show up has diminished to the vanishing point.
The case was kept alive in the press and public awareness due to the diligent work of the Andrew Goodman Foundation which encourages young people of all religious backgrounds to be engaged in social justice work and continues to campaign for the preservation and extension of voting rights which are under pressure from a wave of suppression laws enacted across the Old South and states with Republican governors and Legislatures. Andrew Goodman’s brother, David is the effective public face of the foundation.
Then there was the troubling role of FBI informants within the Klan. Although J. Edgar Hoover planted spies in both the civil rights camp and in various Klan groups and White Citizen’s Councils, he was clearly more fixated on discrediting the Civil Rights Movement, particularly its charismatic leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., than he was with White terrorists. He was also loath to disclose how deeply his informants were involved in several high profile cases, including the murders of the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo during the Selma Campaign—so deeply they may have been directly complicit in brutal crimes.
The film Mississippi Burning starring Gene Hackman and Willem DaFoe as the lead FBI investigatosr on the case started a trend in films about the Civil Rights movement that put white heroes at the center of Black stories.
1988’s award winning Mississippi Burning told the brutal tale of entrenched Southern Racism. It starred Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as a pair of FBI agents who diligently and doggedly investigated the crime. Widely praised at the time of its release, the film set a pattern for other movies about the Civil Rights era which always centered on white heroes relegating black victims and civil rights workers alike to secondary roles in their own stories. And the irony of the FBI as heroes was not lost on many who lived through those times.
By the summer of 1964 the Civil Rights movement had matured. The non-violent civil disobedience campaigns of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other groups had won some local victories and the near passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had cleared a 57 day long Senate Filibuster just two days before the murders. But progress was painfully slow and everywhere bitterly resisted, often with violence. The Movement was experiencing internal stresses due to tactical differences, jealousies, and rivalries between groups and leaders, and the early stages of restiveness among younger militants over the limitations of non-violence in the face of increasingly brutal attacks.
CORE was gaining a reputation for both a more confrontational approach than Dr. King’s SCLC and for going into the heart of the Black Belt to work in small towns and rural communities with long-term organizing projects. It declared that summer to be Freedom Summer and publicly vowed to bring up to 30,000 volunteers into Mississippi to set up Freedom Schools and conduct voter registration drives. Although that number was wildly exaggerated, it got the attention of Whites, many of whom flocked to join the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a splinter group founded and led by Samuel Bowers which had a reputation of being much more aggressive than older Klan organizations. It was also very active in recruiting among local law enforcement officers.
Student volunteers for COREs Freedom Summer voter registration project in Mississippi join hands and sing as the prepare to head south.
Andrew Goodman was a 20 year old New York student and activist from a Red Blanket secular Jewish background. Michael Schwerner was a 24 year old from a comfortable suburban background who graduated from Cornel University and was in graduate school at Columbia University. Like Goodman he came from a Jewish family. His classmate and friend at Columbia, the diminutive Robert Reich, later a Secretary of Labor and now a progressive social media star, remembered him as a “Gentle giant” who protected him from campus bullies. Both Goodman and Schwerner became involved with CORE while in school and eagerly signed up to join the volunteers heading to Mississippi for the Freedom Summer.
Once in state they were teamed with James Chaney, a 21 year old working class Black man from Meridian, Mississippi who was already a Civil Rights veteran. Two years earlier in 1962 he had and endured the attacks on the Freedom Rides on interstate busses. He had joined CORE and was already experienced in organizing voter registration drives in his hometown. Of the three young men Chaney was the only one remotely aware of how dangerous their work would be.
Chaney and Schwerner were assigned to organize Freedom School in Neshoba County to prepare local Blacks to pass the tough comprehension and literacy tests required by the state. These tests were a huge hurdle to voting and even answering every question correctly did not guarantee that it would be correctly marked. Many would be voters had to take the test repeatedly. Part of the training at the school was in how to behave when turned down to prevent immediate arrest for causing a disturbance.
The ruins of the Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi where where James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner spoke on Memorial Day.
The pair kicked off their organizing attempt with speeches at Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi. Local members of the White Knights of the Klan immediately got word of the effort and began monitoring the pair’s travels and activities. They also wanted to attract more CORE volunteers to the area with the intent of targeting them. They burned the Mount Zion Church knowing that CORE would respond. It did and Goodman soon joined the other two.
Early on June 21the trio met in the Meridian offices of CORE’s ally in the Freedom Summer project, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to investigate the Mount Zion arson. Schwerner told the staff to start searching for them if they were not back by 4 p.m. After visiting Longdale the began the return to Meridian on State Rt. 16 to the county seat at Philadelphia where they planned to pick up Rt. 19 back to their base.
Just inside the Philadelphia city limits they experienced a flat tire, probably the result of sabotage to the vehicle or sharp objects strewn it its path. As the car limped down the road they were almost immediately pulled over by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price who apparently had been following them. Price radioed Harry Wiggs and E. R. Poe of the Mississippi Highway Patrol for assistance. Chaney, the driver was arrested on the impossible charge of speeding over 65 MPH. The other two were held for investigation. All were taken to the Neshoba County Jail on Myrtle Street and held incommunicado.
By 4:45 alarmed staffers began calling authorities, including the Highway Patrol, in search of information on their whereabouts. They were given no information.
Still prevented from making a phone call, all three were released at 10 that night. They were followed by Deputy Price as they headed south on Rt. 19. A Highway Patrol car sitting conspicuously at outside Pilgrim’s store dissuaded them from trying to stop and use the phone. Meanwhile a mob of White Knights gathered in two cars drinking and arguing who would have the privilege of killing the men who were now literally fleeing for their lives. Philadelphia Police Officer Burkes told the men in the cars where to find the trio with instruction to “go get them.”
One of the two cars broke down and six of the men jammed into Horace D. Barnette’s ’57 Ford Fairlane for the pursuit. Meanwhile Deputy Price stopped the CORE station wagon which had turned west on State Rt. 492 in an attempt to elude any pursuers. He turned the men around and moved them back on Rt. 19 to Philadelphia, strait into path of the oncoming lynchers. The police cruiser and Fairlane boxed in the station wagon and steered it onto nearly deserted Rock Cut Road where they stopped at a secluded intersection with another County Highway. The three Civil Rights workers were dragged from their car.
Alton W. Roberts, 26, a dishonorably discharged U.S. Marine who worked as a salesman in Meridian shot both Goodman and Schwerner at point blank range after asking Schwerner, “Are you that Nigger lover.” Chaney was singled out for a beating and then shot in the stomach by James Jordan and then finished off with another shot to the head by Roberts.
After the murders the bodies were loaded into their station wagon which was driven by prior arrangement to Old Jolly Farm owned by Olen L. Burrage southwest of Philadelphia and placed on a red clay dam on the property. Herman Tucker, a heavy machinery operator, was at the dam waiting for the lynch mob’s arrival with his bulldozer, which he used to cover the bodies.
Goodman was apparently not yet dead when he was covered. When his body was finally recovered red clay was found in his lungs and clenched hands.
After the job was done Deputy Price told the men:
Well, boys, you’ve done a good job. You’ve struck a blow for the white man. Mississippi can be proud of you. You’ve let those agitating outsiders know where this state stands. Go home now and forget it. But before you go, I’m looking each one of you in the eye and telling you this: “The first man who talks is dead! If anybody who knows anything about this ever opens his mouth to any outsider about it, then the rest of us are going to kill him just as dead as we killed those three sonofbitches tonight. Does everybody understand what I’m saying. The man who talks is dead, dead, dead!
The burnt out station wagon used by the Civil Rights Workers was quickly discovered confirming the worst fears for their fate.
Tucker was assigned to dispose of the CORE station wagon by driving it to Alabama. Instead. he ditched it near a river along Highway 21 in northeast Neshoba County and set it ablaze. That proved to be a fatal mistake. After the Meridian COFO office, the initial target of an FBI surveillance team already stationed in town, reported its three volunteers missing, J. Edgar Hoover reluctantly moved to begin a search. He was acting under pressure from Attorney General Robert Kennedy who also ordered 150 additional agents from New Orleans to the scene. The burnt-out station wagon was accidently discovered the next day by two Native Americans who reported it to the Meridian Agent in charge, John Proctor. Kennedy then ordered hundreds of sailors from the Naval Air Station Meridian to search the swamps of Bogue Chitto for the bodies. Top Special Agent Joseph Sullivan was brought in from Memphis to lead the investigation. Proctor and Sullivan would be the models for the fictional FBI agents in Mississippi Burning.
That search turned up unexpected results. The bodies of college student Charles Eddie Moore and a sawmill worker from Franklin County, Mississippi were found badly decomposed in a river chained to a Jeep motor. Although neither 19 year of old Black men was known to be involved in Civil Rights work, they were picked up while hitch hiking in May on suspicion, beaten, tortured, and interrogated before being dropped into the river alive. The bodies of five other recently murdered young black men from rural towns in the area who were never reported missing were also turned up. It was grizzly evidence of a well-oiled and active night riding operation.
Acting on a tip from a mysterious Mr. X the FBI dispatched searchers to Burrage’s farm where the bodies were discovered 44 days after their abduction and murder. The case unraveled from there.
Outrage over the murders help secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Lyndon Johnson presents Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr with a ceremonial pen following a signing ceremony at the White House.
National outrage about the murder of the idealistic young Northern volunteers was used by President Lyndon Johnson to leverage final passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on July 2. As many noted even at the time, the death of their Black comrade Chaney alone would hardly have caused a ripple in Congress. The case along with the deaths of White volunteers the Rev. Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo during the Selma Campaign the next year was also credited with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
You may have noted the great and specific detail known about exactly how the murders were committed and by whom. Exactly how do we know so much? Good question. Although the FBI may not have had informants within the inner circle of those who plotted and planned the murder as well as the lynch mob that carried it out—although some historians believe that at least one of the men may have been a deep cover informant never revealed by the agency because he was actively involved in the killings—there were informants in the wider White Knights of the Klan organization. Take Mr. X. Forty years after the fact he was identified as Mississippi State Trooper and Klan member Maynard King who was enlisted as an informant by Agent Sullivan.
Other informants were on hand on for instance on June 7 when White Knights Imperial Wizard Bowers told a secret rally:
This summer the enemy [CORE] will launch his final push for victory in Mississippi…there must be a secondary group of our members, standing back from the main area of conflict, armed and ready to move. It must be an extremely swift, extremely violent, hit-and-run group.
So, the FBI was aware that a serious and violent plot against Freedom Summer volunteers was afoot weeks before the murders. After the fact other informants associated with the Klan but never identified by Federal agents passed bits and pieces of information they picked up from the loose lips of participants or second hand from others.
In late November 1964 the FBI accused 21 men of conspiracy to injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. Most of the suspects were arrested by the FBI on December 4, 1964. Mississippi officials declined to prosecute any of the men for murder so Assistant Attorney General John Doar led a star crossed Federal prosecution for conspiring to deprive the three activists of their civil rights. 18 men including Sherriff Rainey and Deputy Price were originally indicted. Travis M. Barnette, owner of a Meridian garage where much of the planning was done, and James Jordan who was the first to shoot Chaney both confessed and would testify at upcoming trials. Jordan’s testimony was particularly damming.
The faces of evil--members of the lynch mob who carried out the murders: Top Row, L-R: Deputy Cecil R. Price, Travis M. Barnette, Alton W. Roberts, Jimmy K. Arledge, Jimmy Snowden. Bottom Row, L-R: Jerry M. Sharpe, Billy W. Posey, Jimmy L. Townsend, Horace D. Barnette, and James Jordan who confessed and testified against the others.
Despite strong evidence, the case hit snag after snag. After several false starts and bringing the case back to a Grand Jury once, the U.S. v. Cecil Price et. al. came to trial on October 7, 1967 in the Meridian with Federal Judge William Cox, an ardent segregationist, presiding. An all-White jury included one admitted former Ku Klux Klan member. When the jury deadlocked despite overwhelming evidence, Cox admonished them with an Allen charge for the minority to reconsider its judgement.
On October 20 Cecil Price, Imperial Wizard Bowers, Alton Wayne Roberts, Jimmy Snowden, Billey Wayne Posey, Horace Barnett, and Jimmy Arledge were convicted and sentenced to between 3 to 10 years. After losing their appeal all went to prison, but none served more than six years. They were the first white men convicted of a fatal crime against civil rights workers. The cases of E. G. Barnett, a candidate for Sheriff, and preacher Edgar Ray Killen, believed to be the principal mastermind of the plot ended in a hung jury. Prosecutors declined to re-try them. No charges were brought against several other men known to be involved in the wide-spread plot.
Edgar Ray Killen, mastermind of the plot was finally convicted of the three murder in a Mississippi court in 2005.
After years of investigation by intrepid journalist Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson Clarian-Ledger and the work of High School teacher Barry Bradford at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois and three of his students, Allison Nichols, Sarah Siegel, and Brittany Saltiel who produced a documentary film on the case and helped uncover new evidence, Mississippi prosecutors were finally pressed into bring murder charges against Killen. At age 80 he was convicted and sentenced to three consecutive 20 year terms in 2005. He died in prison on January 11, 2018, six days before his 93rd birthday.