Jim Crow Museum
1010 Campus Drive
Big Rapids, MI 49307
Civil rights workers Michael Henry Schwerner, James Earl Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were killed by a mob of Klansmen in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964. Less than one month prior to their deaths, on Memorial Day, Schwerner, a target for "elimination" by members of the local Ku Klux Klan (KKK) due to his work for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in and around Meridian, MS, and Chaney, a Meridian native and Schwerner's chief aide, arranged to set up a Freedom School at Mount Zion Church in Longdale. A few weeks later, on the night of June 16, Klansmen beat church members and burned Mount Zion following a church business meeting at which the Klansmen were hoping to find Schwerner. However, Schwerner and Chaney were in Ohio at the time attending a conference to train workers who would implement Freedom Summer initiatives in various states. Upon learning of the Klan attack at Mount Zion, Schwerner and Chaney headed back to Mississippi along with Goodman, a young volunteer Schwerner had met in Ohio and recruited to help with the Freedom Summer efforts in Meridian and the surrounding communities (Congress of Racial Equality, n.d.).
When they arrived in Mississippi, the three civil rights workers visited the remains of Mount Zion Church and interviewed some of the church members to learn more about the KKK attack. Following these visits, Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman were arrested by Neshoba County Deputy Sherriff Cecil Price as they were traveling back to the CORE office in Meridian on the afternoon of June 21. Price, a member of the local Klan, allegedly held the three civil rights workers for their possible connection to the arson of Mount Zion Church. While the three men were held at the county jail in Philadelphia, Price contacted Edgar Ray Killen, the local Klan recruiter, presumably to formulate a plan to kill the prisoners later that night (Linder, n.d.).
Just after 10:00 PM, the plot to murder Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman was set in motion when Price returned to the jail and told the jailer to release the three men. As Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman once again tried to drive back to Meridian, they were chased down by Price and two carloads of Klansmen. The Klansmen drove the three civil rights workers to a remote location where, according to the testimony of two informants who were present as members of the mob, Schwerner and Goodman were executed at close range by shots fired by Klansman Wayne Roberts (Linder, n.d.). Chaney, on the other hand, was beaten and tortured by the mob before he was killed (Dickoff & Pagano, 2012). The murdered bodies of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman were buried in a dam on the land of another Klansman (Congress of Racial Equality, n.d.).
Following an extensive investigation by local and federal officials that revealed telling details of and participants in the murders, Mississippi officials refused to file state murder charges against any of the Klansmen. This was not surprising given the social climate in Mississippi at the time; state officials had claimed the disappearance of the three men was a hoax until the bodies were found ("Lyndon Johnson", 2012). Finally, in 1967, three years after the murders, federal charges were filed against 18 men for violating the civil rights of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman. There was no federal murder statute under which to prosecute the defendants, so the charge of depriving the three young men of their civil rights was the only option available to federal prosecutors. In what has come to be known as the "Mississippi Burning Trial," an all-white jury found seven of the defendants guilty, including Deputy Price, Wayne Roberts, and KKK Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, who had ordered Schwerner's "elimination" the month prior to the murders. However, the jury acquitted seven other men and could not reach a decision in the case of three of the defendants, including Killen. Additionally, the charges against one defendant were dropped. In pronouncing sentencing, which ranged from three to ten years, although none of those convicted would spend more than six years in jail, the trial judge, who was a known segregationist, said, "They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved" (Linder, n.d.).
The investigation into the deaths of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, the unwillingness of the state of Mississippi to file murder charges against any of the suspects, and the subsequent federal trial drew national attention to the civil rights battle in Mississippi and throughout the country. Additionally, the manner in which this case was handled plagued citizens of Mississippi for decades, especially those living in Neshoba County who continued to be haunted by the memories of the murders long after the trial ended (Dickoff & Pagano, 2012). As a small measure of atonement, in 2005, over 40 years after the murders, Edgar Ray Killen was charged, tried, convicted of three counts of manslaughter, and sentenced to three 20-year sentences for his role in the murders of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman (Dewan, 2005). Killen will likely be the only Klansmen to ever stand trial for the murders as the final living suspects pass away, but the impact of the heinous crime committed by the Klan mob in 1964 will continue to live on.
Jim Crow Museum 2012
Congress of Racial Equality. (n.d.). The "Mississippi Burning" trial (U.S. v. Price
Retrieved from http://www.core-online.org/History/mississippi_burning.htm
Dewan, S. (2005, June 22). Former Klansman guilty of manslaughter in 1964 deaths.
The New York Times.
Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/22/national/22civil.html?pagewanted=all
Dickoff, M. & Pagano, T. (Producer/Directors). (2010). Neshoba: The price of freedom
[Motion Picture]. Pro Bono Productions and Pagano Productions.
Available from http://firstrunfeatures.com/neshobadvd.html or http://blip.tv/free-speech-tv/neshoba-the-price-of-freedom-5911388
Linder, D.O. (n.d.). The Mississippi burning trial: United States vs. Cecil Price
Retrieved from http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/price&bowers/Account.html
Lyndon Johnson on Missing Civil Rights Workers. (2012). The History Channel website.
Retrieved 1:50, October 9, 2012, from http://www.history.com/speeches/lyndon-johnson-on-missing-civil-rights-workers
Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman Video