The story

Michael Schwerner

Michael Schwerner



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Since I have become active in CORE here in New York, I have become increasingly aware of the problems which exist in the Southern states. I have a strong desire to contribute in some small way, by the utilization of those skills which I possess, to the redress of the many grievances occurring daily. I wish to become an active participant rather than a passive onlooker.

As a teacher I have been working in South Jamaica, Queens where I not only have had experience in dealing with teenagers, but have become increasingly concerned with the conditions under which these children must live.

As my husband and I are in close agreement as to our philosophy and involvement in the civil rights struggle, I wish to work near him, under the direction of CORE, in whatever capacity I may be most useful. My hope is to someday pass on to the children we may have a world containing more respect for the dignity and worth of all men that that would which was willed to us.

My husband, Michael Schwerner, did not die in vain. If he and Andrew Goodman had been Negroes, the world would have taken little notice of their deaths. After all, the slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news. It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm had been sounded.

More than any white person I have ever known he could put a colored person at ease. To a group of young Negroes he didn't seem like a preacher, or a do-gooder, or a social worker, or somebody who was out slumming, or a reporter who had come to learn about Negroes. He was the only white man I have ever known that you could associate with and forget he was white. He didn't talk down or up to you, he just talked to you. He made you feel he was interested in you, not because you were a Negro, but because you were folks, too. He never pretended that he knew what was best for you.

There was nothing masochistic about Mickey Schwerner. He wanted to live: he loved life. He didn't want to die. He was a capable of fear as any young man. I have seen him afraid. It's true that he didn't fear a few days in jail. And he had no great fear of being slapped, kicked, or beaten. But to save his life, I think he would have done anything within his physical power. Mickey was incapable of believing that a police officer in the United States would arrest him on a highway for the purpose of murdering him, then and there, in the dark.

The voice on the line was polite but insistent. The FBI was conducting a nationwide manhunt for three men who had disappeared in Mississippi. My car had been found abandoned in suspicious circumstances in nearby Louisiana. Would I come immediately to explain why, and whether I knew anything about the men? The voice on the line was polite but insistent. Would I come immediately to explain why, and whether I knew anything about the men?

The phone call was unnerving even though I had nothing to hide, and I hastened to obey the summons. Of course I knew that the men had gone missing: the case was rocking America that summer, exactly 40 years ago. America's turbulent civil rights decade was at its height and the missing men were three volunteer activists who had been helping black people stand up for their rights and register to vote in the Deep South's most violent state. They had been arrested by the deputy sheriff of Neshoba county on June 21, held for a few hours, and released after dark. Two days later their burned-out station wagon was discovered on a lonely road, but the men were nowhere to be found.

James Chaney, 21, was a black Mississippian from Meridian, a city in the eastern part of the state. Micky Schwerner, 24, was a Jewish activist from New York City who had spent four months in Meridian, running various civil rights projects. Andrew Goodman, 20, came from an upper-middle-class New York family, and had arrived in Mississippi only the day before he went missing. Their terrible story was later turned into a film, Mississippi Burning.

The three activists had disappeared a few hours after a cavalcade of 200 young people arrived in Mississippi for what was called the Freedom Summer. The term "human shields" was not yet in vogue but that is what we were. The idea was that as outsiders we might shame Mississippi's police and sheriffs into reducing their brutality. With the exception of a handful of foreigners such as myself, the roughly 800 volunteers were American - mostly students from prestigious Ivy League universities and other private colleges. We had to bring $500 for use as bail money in the very probable case of being arrested on trumped-up or minor charges.

There were a few middle-class blacks but the majority were affluent whites, and firm believers in the American dream. In the deep south they were vilified as "outside agitators", as though they had no business to be there. They discovered another America, a society in which they were indeed foreigners. Here was a state where blacks made up 45% of the population but only 6% had managed to overcome the poll taxes, the unfairly administered literacy tests and violent reprisals, just to get on the register to exercise their American right to vote.

Question: Then what happened?

Answer: About that time the Deputy's car came by, said something to the man in the red car, and the Deputy's car, and we took off to follow them.

Question: What deputy are you talking about?

Answer: Cecil Price.

Question: Then what did you do?

Answer: Turned the cars around come back toward highway 19.

Question: Then where did you go?

Answer: Turned left on highway 19 all the way to, oh about 34 miles to this other cut-off road which wasn't a paved highway and then they said somebody had better stay here and watch in case anything happens, 'til the other car comes.

Question: How about the people, uhh, did you pass the red car going?

Answer: Yes sir.

Question: You were going toward Philadelphia?

Answer: Yes sir.

Question: And was anyone in the red car when you passed it?

Answer: This young man and Sharpe were still there.

Question: Now, did any of these people, uhh did they both stay there?

Answer: No sir, Sharpe got in the, I believe he got in the wagon or the other car that was ahead of us, I don't know where he got in the police car or not.

Question: Will you tell the Court and Jury what you heard and what you did?

Answer: Well, I hear a car door slamming, and some loud talking, I couldn't understand or distinguish anybody's voice or anything, and then I heard several shots.

Question: Then what did you do?

Answer: Walked up the road toward where the noise came from.

Question: And what did you see when you walked up the road?

Answer: Just a bunch of men milling and standing around that had been in the two cars ahead of us and someone said, "better pick up these shells." I hollered, "what do you want me to do?"

Question: Then what did you do?

Answer: Then...

Question: Excuse me, did you see these three boys?

Answer: Yes sir, beside the road.

Question: How were they?

Answer: They were lying down.

Question: Were they dead?

Answer: I presume so, yes sir.

Now, what's the theory of the Government's case? Actually isn't it a theory of this case that here in Mississippi, that there is so much hate and prejudice in Mississippi that we hate all outsiders, and that there is a group of people here in Mississippi so filled with that hate that they conspire together and meet together organize organizations to do away and murder outsiders that come into this State.

Members of the Jury, I know you know what an old scapegoat is. It's nothing but just a billy goat with a bell on it, and they used to bring all of the other innocent animals into the slaughtering house, or the slaughtering pen, and when they get there and they go on with their slaughtering, and that's exactly what Jim Jordan is. But the most miraculous thing about that, I knew the government used that before, they have in years gone by, and all the times I've been engaged in the practice of law I never knew a State of a Government in the presentation of their case to try to blow hot and cold in the same breath. They got in here and they put Jim Jordan on the stand and he sat up there with his eyes all bugged out and he just rattles it off like that, just exactly what happened, he said. Then, the government, just a little bit later, brings statement and say you ought to convict somebody on which impeaches almost everything he said. I just don't see how the government can have so many theories of these cases and then represent to you there's no reasonable doubts, there's no mistake.

Buford Posey was stunned when he picked up the March 13 copy of the Neshoba Democrat, a local newspaper. Prominently featured was a photo of the newly sworn-in officers of the Neshoba County Shriners club. Among the men in the photo was Cecil Price who had just taken the oath as the Shriners' vice president.

"Cecil Price was the chief deputy sheriff of Neshoba County in 1964," Posey told the People's Weekly World in an exclusive interview. "He led the Ku Klux Klan that lynched Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman on Sunday night, June 21, 1964.I have tried without success to get Mississippi newspapers to comment on this outrage of Cecil Price being elected as a high-ranking Masonic leader," Posey said.

Although Posey comes from a prominent Mississippi family, he was active in the civil rights movement in the early '60s. He will tell you, with not a little bit of pride in his voice, that he was the first white person in Mississippi to join the NAACP. He now lives in Oxford, where he receives a small disability pension.

Posey said that the FBI knew who murdered the civil rights workers within hours of the grisly event. "In those days I was in Neshoba County, where I was born and raised. Though I traveled around a lot, I had been at my father's in Philadelphia because he was dying of prostate cancer," Posey said.

"The murders took place on a Sunday night, June 21, 1964 on Rock Cut Road, right off Highway 19. I was sitting home that night. It was late, 2 o'clock or something like that, and I received a call. I recognized the voice at once." The caller was Edgar Ray Killen, the "chaplain" of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. "We took care of your three friends tonight and you're next," Killen told Posey.

Posey had gone to Meridian the week before and talked to Schwerner, the oldest of the three murdered workers. "I told them to be careful. 'The Klan has sentenced you to death. You know the sheriffs up there, Lawrence Rainey and Cecil Ray Price, are Klan members.'"

The morning after the call from Killen, Posey contacted the FBI, first in Jackson and then New Orleans. "I told them I was a civil rights worker, who I worked for and what had happened. I told them the preachers' name and that I thought the sheriff's office was involved in the murder."

Though the FBI ignored Posey, a chain of events was soon set in motion that led to the discovery of the bodies and another three years later, the conviction of Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, Price and five others on federal charges of violating the civil rights of the three murdered men.

Posey had talked to newspaper columnist Drew Pearson who was a friend of President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson and the "big news organizations," according to Posey, started to put the pressure on.

Mississippi never brought state charges against any of the Klansmen who committed these crimes. Posey thinks there's a reason for that. "When I was coming up most of the white people in Mississippi didn't know it was against the law to murder a Black person," he said. He recalled an incident he witnessed as a child that shaped his thinking on the genocidal cruelty of racism.

"I was in Philadelphia one Saturday afternoon - in the olden days people came to town on Saturday - they were share croppers and the like. Well, to make a long story short, there was this Black teenager. There was this white woman who came out of a store right there on Court Square." The teen accidentally bumped into her. The woman started screaming.

"Well, some men went into Johnson's hardware store and took out some shotguns," Posey said. "They chased the poor young fellow around Court Square, shooting at him. They killed him and chained him to the flag pole."

In 1994 hundreds of veteran civil rights workers gathered in Jackson to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer. Among those attending the conference were Rita Schwerner, widow of Michael Schwerner, and Carolyn Goodman, mother of Andrew Goodman.

A political firestorm was set off when Dick Molphus, then a Democratic candidate for governor, apologized to Carolyn Goodman. Gov. Kirk Fordice rebuked Molphus, saying it did no good to drag up the past. Posey believes this provided the incentive for Neshoba County to "rehabilitate" Cecil Price.

The rededication of the grave site of James Chaney in nearby Meridian was the emotional highlight of the Mississippi homecoming. Chaney's brother, Ben, had a warning for civil rights veterans who had come to honor the three martyrs.

"There are a lot of good people in Mississippi," he said. "But there are still some who haven't learned the lessons of the past. There are still people in Mississippi who don't want my brother to rest in peace."

Chaney told the World that gunshots from a high-powered rifle had been fired into his brother's gravestone. At least one attempt had been made to dig up and steal the body.

Rev. Charles Johnson, who was a government witness in the federal trial of Chaney's murderers, sounded a more optimistic note. "These three men shed their blood in the state of Mississippi and because of them we have the Voting Rights Act. Because of them we have more elected Black officials in Mississippi than in any other state."

Johnson said, "In this state, hatred flowed like a river. Where hatred rolled, freedom and love now flow. We have to get to the young people and let them know what Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman did for them."

It was 41 years ago today that Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and Michael Chaney headed to Philadelphia to help some local blacks who had been beaten by the Klan and whose church had been burned. Today, we know that they were lured here to die....

When we had left here Monday night, we were a bit apprehensive that Killen would be acquitted. The jury’s forewoman had announced a 6-6 split. There’s no way to know yet, but on reflection today, it could have been 6 guilty for murder and 6 guilty for manslaughter. That makes more sense in the light of today’s pronouncements.

So, there I sat in the courtroom. Mickey Schwerner’s widow Rita Bender was within my sight as she waited anxiously on the front row on the left side of the courtroom. Killen’s family looked concerned on the right side.

Security was extensive around and within the Neshoba County courthouse. I saw men with rifles entering about 7 a.m. and the entire Philadelphia Swat team assembled nearby. Dozens of Highway Patrolmen were stationed at the doorways and within the courtroom. Just before the sentence was pronounced, the most muscular of the patrolmen came forward in the aisles to discourage any members of the public from doing anything inappropriate upon hearing Killen’s fate.

The jury was escorted in and lined up in a semicircle in front of the judge’s bench. Gordon asked if they had reached a verdict. They had, said the forewoman. Hand me the verdicts, Gordon said, then he read each carefully. He polled each one to determine if these verdicts were their own. Yes, each said. Then clerk Lee read the verdicts: guilty of manslaughter, guilty of manslaughter and guilty of manslaughter.

A collective sigh came from many onlookers, who had been admonished to behave when the verdicts were read. “The court appreciates your attention and services,” Gordon said to jurors just before they were dismissed and escorted to their vehicles. No one else moved or could move in the courtroom.

Killen’s white-haired wife rose from her seat near the front row and put her arms around him as he sat impassively in his wheelchair. At 11:26, Gordon said, “Edgar Ray Killen, a jury has found you guilty.” The judge committed him to the custody of the sheriff and Killen was wheeled from the courtroom. As Mrs. Killen sat back in her seat, the people on each side of her embraced her and each put an arm around her quavering shoulders...

After the verdict, the Media Center hosted a massive news conference, live on CNN and other media outlets. First to the microphone was Rita Schwerner Bender, then Ben Chaney, younger brother of James Chaney. I wish I could tell you exactly what they said, but I was busy trying to make sure things were moving along technically. When they completed lengthy remarks and thanks, they were followed by Attorney General Jim Hood of Houston and local District Attorney Mark Duncan. Hood and Duncan spent a lot of time at the mic talking about the trial, how difficult its preparation had been and about information they had that never got into testimony. Duncan would not say if any others could be tried in this crime.

Also making remarks were members of the Philadelphia Coalition, a local group of whites and blacks who had pressed hard for Killen’s indictment. Their faces told the story of how proud they felt of the trial’s conclusion.

I’m seeking to wind down the Media Center in hopes of getting back to the job I signed on for almost two years ago – at the Daily Journal. Thanks to Lloyd Gray and Mike Tonos for allowing me to do this. It has been an unforgettable experience I got to share with my son, a Meridian reporter headed for Ole Miss law school this fall. We’ll always be able to share this. It was a moment, but it was an important one because hopefully it has lifted the stigma of “Mississippi Burning” from our good state.

A Mississippi jury convicted former Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter Tuesday, 41 years after the murder of three civil rights workers, including two from New York City.

The jury of nine whites and three blacks reached the verdict on their second day of deliberations, rejecting murder charges against the 80-year-old defendant.

Killen sat motionless as the verdict was read and was later comforted by his wife as he sat in his wheelchair, attached to an oxygen tube.

Civil rights workers James Chaney and New Yorkers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were ambushed on June 21, 1964. Their bodies were found 44 days later. They had been beaten and shot.

Here in New York, Goodman's mother told NY1 the verdict is one she has been waiting for ever since her son was killed.

"This is something I was hoping would happen," said Carolyn Goodman in a statement. "I have waited 40 years for this. I hope this man will pay for his crimes and know what he did."

Killen, who was a part-time preacher and sawmill operator, was tried in 1967 on federal charges of violating the victims' civil rights. But the all-white jury deadlocked, with one juror saying she could not convict a preacher.

Seven others were convicted, but none served more than six years.

Killen was indicted on murder charges this time around, which could have carried a life sentence, but the defense appealed to the jury to lessen the conviction to manslaughter charges. Killen now faces a maximum of 20 years in prison on each of the three counts.

The conviction comes exactly 41 years to the day after the three civil rights workers disappeared.

Exactly 41 years to the day after three young civil rights activists disappeared in Mississippi, Edgar Ray Killen, a Ku Klux Klan member and part-time preacher, yesterday became the first person convicted over their killing.

The jury found the 80-year-old guilty of manslaughter in the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were ambushed, beaten, and shot while working to promote black voting rights during the "freedom summer" of 1964.

Although the jury rejected the more serious murder charges against the former Klan leader, Killen could still face 20 years in prison for his part in the killings, which inspired the 1988 film Mississippi Burning. He will be sentenced tomorrow, Killen, wearing an oxygen mask and in a wheelchair since breaking both legs during a logging accident, showed no emotion as the verdict was read out.

Schwerner's widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, welcomed the verdict, calling it "a day of great importance to all of us". But she said others also should be held responsible for the murders. "Preacher Killen didn't act in a vacuum," she said. There are believed to be seven more men involved who are still alive.

The three victims - Chaney, a black activist from Mississippi, and Schwerner and Goodman, white activists from New York - were picked up by a local policeman after they visited the ruins of a black church burned down by the Klan the previous week. The men were released in the middle of the night, but the policeman, a Klan member, had tipped off local Klansmen and they were chased down in their car by a mob, who shot and then buried them. Their bodies were found 44 days later.

In 1967, 18 men, including Killen, were tried on conspiracy charges. Seven were convicted, but none served more than six years in prison. Killen walked free as a result of a hung jury.

The conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for the manslaughter of three civil rights workers has a symbolic significance that goes beyond the families of those who died 41 years ago.

At stake was not just how Killen would spend his fading years, but whether Mississippi - a state Martin Luther King described as "sweltering in injustice" in his "I have a dream" speech - could, and should, address its segregationist past...

Mark Duncan, the prosecuting district attorney countered: "There is only one question. Is a Neshoba county jury going to tell the rest of the world that we are not going to let Edgar Ray Killen get away with murder anymore? Not one day more."

Most of the evidence presented at the trial has been known for 40 years. "It wasn't like there was any one thing that happened that said, 'Here's the magic bullet'," Mr. Duncan told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "It really was that we had gotten to the end. There was nothing to do."

But as the defendants and the witnesses got older, there was a fear that Killen might die and take Mississippi's reputation down with him. For some this was a race against time to show that the potency of race in the former Confederacy had been extinguished.

Killen's manslaughter conviction, like the conviction of 22 others for civil rights-era killings in the past 16 years, was part of a push to show that the goods, as well as the packaging, had changed...

According to a census report from 2002, the top five residentially segregated metropolitan areas in the US are Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, St Louis and Newark - none of which is in the south. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, you will find higher rates of black poverty in the northern states of Wisconsin, Illinois and West Virginia than in Mississippi.

The only difference between the north and the south, wrote the late James Baldwin, was that "the north promised more. And (there was only) this similarity: what it promised it did not give and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other."

Nonetheless, if much has changed, much has remained the same. Indeed the Klan still march in town every year, and during the trial Harlan Majure, the mayor of Philadelphia during the 1990s, said he had no problem with the Ku Klux Klan. Mr Majure told the jury the Klan "did a lot of good up here", and claimed that he was not personally aware of the organisation's bloody past.

African Americans in the state remain at a huge disadvantage. Infant mortality rates are twice as high, earnings are half as much as whites, and black people are three times as likely to live in poverty. The state has the lowest wages and highest infant mortality rates and poverty in the country....

And last night Ben Chaney, the brother of one of the victims, James Chaney, a black Mississippian, thanked "the white people who walked up to me and said things are changing. I think there's hope."

In the 40 years since he killed the three young civil rights workers, Edgar Ray Killen has remained unrepentant. He told the New York Times six years ago the ex-Klansman branded his victims "communists" who were threatening Mississippi's way of life. "I'm sorry they got themselves killed" was all the remorse he could muster.

That way of life denied black people the vote, kept races separate and unequal and that's how he liked it.

Both reclusive and notorious, he ran a sawmill and lived with his wife in a small house with a tablet displaying the Ten Commandments on his lawn.

Until the trial opened last week he denied he had any involvement in the Klan, although those in the town said his involvement was always an open secret. "Killen was one of those rednecks," says 89-year-old Buford Posey. "I know ... I was one of those rednecks."

Investigators always insisted he was the leader of the mob that night.

Howard Ball, a civil rights worker who wrote Murder in Mississippi: United States v. Price and the Struggle for Civil Rights, described the preacher as "the mastermind".

"He got the gloves, he got the backhoe operator, he was able to work with (a local landowner) to get the site of the burial," Ball told the Los Angeles Times. "If there is one person, it should be him."

One day short of the 52nd anniversary of the disappearance of three civil rights workers during Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer,” state and federal prosecutors have said that the investigation into the killings is over.

The decision “closes a chapter” in the state’s divisive civil rights history, Mississippi attorney general Jim Hood said.

“The evidence has been degraded by memory over time, and so there are no individuals that are living now that we can make a case on at this point,” Hood said.

He said, however, that if new information comes forward because of the announcement that the case is closed, prosecutors could reconsider and pursue a case.

The 1964 killings of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County sparked national outrage and helped spur passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They later became the subject of the film “Mississippi Burning.”

On Monday, their relatives said the focus should not be only on the three men, but on all the people killed or hurt while seeking justice.

“The civil rights period was not about just those three young men,” said the reverend Julia Chaney Moss, Chaney’s sister. “It was about all of the lives.”


Michael Schwerner - History

(November 6, 1939 - June 21, 1964)

Called Mickey by friends and colleagues, was a CORE field worker killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi, by the Ku Klux Klan in response to the civil-rights work he coordinated, which included promoting registration to vote among Mississippi African Americans.

Born and raised in New York, he attended Michigan State University, originally intending to become a veterinarian. He transferred to Cornell University, however, and switched his major to sociology, going on after graduation to the School of Social Work at Columbia University. While an undergraduate at Cornell, he integrated the school's chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity.

Twenty-four-year-old Schwerner had come to Mississippi in January of 1964 with his wife Rita after having been hired as a CORE field worker. In his application for the CORE position, Schwerner, a native of New York City, wrote "I have an emotional need to offer my services in the South." Schwerner added that he hoped to spend "the rest of his life" working for an integrated society. On January 15, 1964, Michael and Rita left New York in their VW Beetle for Mississippi. After talking with civil rights leader Bob Moses in Jackson, Schwerner was sent to Meridian to organize the community center and other programs in the largest city in eastern Mississippi. Schwerner became the first white civil rights worker to be based outside of the capitol of Jackson.

Once in Meridian, Schwerner quickly earned the hatred of local KKK by organizing a boycott of a variety store until the store, which sold mostly to blacks, hired its first African American. He also came under heavy attack for his determined efforts to register blacks to vote. After a few months in Meridian, despite hate mail and threatening phone calls and police harassment, Schwerner believed he made the right decision in coming to Mississippi. Mississippi, he said, "is the decisive battleground for America. Nowhere in the world is the idea of white supremacy more firmly entrenched, or more cancerous, than in Mississippi."

"Goatee" to the klan of Neshoba and Lauderdale counties, was the most despised civil rights worker in Mississippi. Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers ordered Schwerner's "elimination" in May, 1964. The Klan finally got their chance to carry out the elimination order on June 21. Because they were with Schwerner, and would know too much if they were not killed, James Chaney and Andy Goodman also had to die.

Schwerner's murder occurred near the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he and fellow workers, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were undertaking field work for CORE.

The three (Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman) were initially arrested by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price for an alleged traffic violation and taken to the jail in Neshoba County. They were released that evening and on the way back to Meridian were stopped by two carloads of KKK members on a remote rural road. The men approached their car and then shot and killed Schwerner, then Goodman, and finally Chaney.

The film Mississippi Burning is loosely based on the murders and ensuing FBI investigation (as is the TV-movie Attack on Terror), and the events leading up to the deaths of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were dramatised in Murder in Mississippi.


Michael Schwerner - History

Testimony of Rita L. Schwerner

During the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 over a thousand white college students from the North traveled South to challenge racial segregation and the dis-enfranchisement of black voters. On June 21, 1964, at the start of the Freedom Summer, a young black Mississippian, James Chaney, and two whites from the North, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, drove to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to look into the bombing of a black church. They never returned, and pleas to the Justice Department to take immediate action were met with coldness. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner had been arrested by local police, then released. In a plan participated in by the sheriff and deputy sheriff of the county, they were then followed by a group of white men who blockaded their car, took them to a deserted farm, beat them with chains, shot them to death, and buried their bodies. Not until forty-four days after their arrest were the bodies of the three young men found. Schwerner's wife, Rita, made this statement 1 before the discovery of the three bodies.

I am 22 years old and the wife of Michael H. Schwerner, one of the three civil rights workers who have been missing in or near Philadelphia, Mississippi, since June 21, 1964. Michael and I came to Mississippi on about January 16 this year as field staff workers for the Congress of Racial Equality, assigned to the Council of Federated Organizations. On about January 21 we went to Meridian, Mississippi, with the purpose of establishing a community center in that city which would provide such services which the state and local authorities would not provide for Negro citizens. From that time until June 21, 1964, we worked continually in and around the area of Meridian and other counties in the eastern half of the Fourth Congressional District. To my knowledge, the only times that Michael left the state in those six and a half months were for a four-day conference in New Orleans in February, a one-day trip the two of us took to New York in March, and the Oxford orientation session in Oxford, Ohio, immediately prior to his disappearance. The only additional time that I was out of the state was for a ten-day visit to New York City from May 24 to June 2.

Shortly after we arrived in Meridian in January, we met Mr. James E. Chaney, a 21 -year-old Negro man who worked with us and eventually became part of the Congress of Racial Equality staff. From about the middle of February to the end of March, James was out of Meridian, working first in Canton and then, for a short time, in Greenwood. At the end of March, he returned to Meridian to work with us.

In the first few weeks that Michael and I were in Meridian, we had to change our place of residence some three or four times, because the Negro families who took us in received intimidating phone calls and became afraid to house us. In February we were able to rent a house from a Negro, Mr. Albert Jones, which he rented from a white woman, Mrs. Roy Cunningham. We lived in that house until the beginning of June, when Mrs. Cunningham insisted that we leave. Prior to our eviction, we had had our rent raised by her.

In the first few weeks that we were in Meridian, we received no threats, nor did we suffer harassment at the hands of the local authorities. However, as people came to know us better, to recognize us, and to know what we were attempting to do, the tension increased. On several occasions my husband was picked up by the local police and taken to the police station, where he was questioned as to our activities, asked to show proof of ownership of our car, etc. They never did pick me up for questioning.

As we achieved some success in establishing the community center, the threats and intimidation began to increase. By May we received so many phone calls at late hours of the night that in order to get some sleep we were forced to remove our telephone receiver before going to bed. We finally resolved this problem by obtaining an unpublished telephone number when we moved to our new apartment after being evicted. The phone calls at the office during the day and evenings continued. They were of several forms. Some were extremely unpleasant in that when I picked up the phone the party at the other end of the line would use extremely offensive language towards me. Other calls we received were threats of violence, such as someone calling and telling me that he was planning to kill my husband, or that my husband was already dead. Michael received anonymous calls telling him that they intended to kill me or that I was already dead.

A man by the name of Mr. Oliver, who runs an electrical shop a few doors down the block from our office, used abusive language directed towards me and my husband continually. He constantly referred to my husband as "jew-boy" and "nigger-lover." I have been told by workers in Meridian that on at least one occasion in the last month, several of them were threatened by Mr. Oliver with an axe handle.

At the end of April, my husband was arrested on two counts of blocking a crosswalk. He was held in the Meridian City Jail from Monday until after his trial on Wednesday. When he was released, he told me that he had narrowly escaped a beating. The police officer who took him to his cell on Monday afternoon called one of the other prisoners out of the cell. My husband could not hear what the police officer said to the other prisoner, but when that man returned to the cell he took Michael aside and told him that he didn't know who he, my husband, was, or what he did, but that he better keep quiet about it while in the jail, because the police officer had said that if this prisoner got the others to beat Michael, no action would be taken by the police.

On Friday, April 18, my husband and I were visiting Reverend R. S. Porter, when he received word that a cross was burning in front of his church. We arrived at the First Union Baptist Church as the fire department was extinguishing the flames, but the cross was still smoldering. In the beginning of June, a large group of people were arrested in Meridian when they attempted to form a picket line in front of three of the five-and-ten-cent stores. They were charged with obstructing traffic. My husband went down to the police station to find out the charges on the arrested persons. Officer Kirkland, whom I believe was the desk sergeant that day, threatened my husband. From what Michael told me, his words were something like this, "If you get anymore of these damn kids arrested, Schwerner, I'm going to get you, and that's a promise." . . .

Michael started making trips into Neshoba County in February and, in all, made about 30 such expeditions. Every time he went into that county to work, I remained in the office in Meridian to receive his phone calls when he checked in, or in the event that anything went wrong and he needed to contact someone. The only times that I did not serve in that capacity were the few trips he made into Neshoba County when I was out of the state. Because the county was known to be so dangerous, I insisted on assuming that job myself, out of obvious concern for my husbands safety. When James Chaney returned to Meridian at the end of March, the two of them usually traveled to Neshoba together, although there were one or two occasions when one of them went alone or with another person. Neshoba County has had a reputation for being so volatile that it has been nicknamed "Bloody Neshoba," and many experienced civil rights workers, for very good reason, declined to work in that territory.

My husband believed very strongly in security precautions, such as phoning in one's whereabouts, and on several occasions I heard him reprimand others who did not call in to the office when they were supposed to. I remember only one incident prior to his disappearance when Michael was two hours late returning from Neshoba County and did not call to tell me why. 1 was frantic and at the point of calling the jails, but refrained because I knew that if he had not been picked up, this would inform the authorities of his whereabouts and make the situation far graver. When he and James returned that particular evening, they said that they had been detained in talking with a contact who had no telephone, and that they were fearful of stopping on the road to call in and advise me of their delay. . . .

On one or more occasions, James told me that the car had been followed in Neshoba County by white persons in cars with the license plates either covered or removed. On one occasion he said he had been followed by an official car, either that of police or sheriff's department, but I don't know which.

On June 21, 1964, Michael and James made another trip to Philadelphia, this time accompanied by Andrew Goodman, one of the volunteer COFO 2 summer workers. I was in Oxford, Ohio, at the time, but before my husband left Oxford at 3 a.m., Saturday, June 20, he told me of his intention to go on Sunday to Philadelphia to investigate the burning of the Mt. Zion Church in the Longdale community. The three men never returned to Meridian, nor did they call in their whereabouts. All knowledge I have of my husband's habits and training indicates that, given the opportunity, he certainly would have called in. It is foolish to assert that he would have turned down the opportunity to do so. The information from officials is vague and contradictory, and all knowledge of the situation in Neshoba County would lead me to believe that the three men have been murdered.

On June 25, at about 3 p.m., I went to the State Capitol building in Jackson with John Robert Zellner, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary, and Reverend Edwin King, the Tougaloo College chaplain. I attempted to see Governor [Paul B.J Johnson Jr.] to ask for his promise of help in the search for the three men. We were told by Senator Barbour that the governor was out for the afternoon and could not be contacted. He was extremely rude in his treatment of me. We then walked over to the Governor's Mansion, arriving just as Governor Johnson walked up the steps with Governor [George] Wallace of Alabama. We followed them up the steps and Mr. Zellner introduced himself by name to Governor Johnson and they shook hands. Mr. Zellner then turned towards me and introduced me as the wife of Michael Schwerner, one of the three missing men. He said that I would like to speak for a moment with the Mississippi governor. The moment Johnson heard who I was, he turned and bolted for the door of the Mansion. The door was locked behind him and a group of Mississippi highway patrolmen surrounded the three of us. An officer with the name plate "Harper" refused to allow us to request an appointment with the governor. Harper said that he would not convey our request to Johnson.

On June 26, 1964, when I went to Neshoba County to speak with Sheriff [Lawrence] Rainey, the car which I was in was followed by a blue, late-model pick-up truck without license plates. There were two white men in the truck. At one point the truck blocked us off in front and a white, late-model car blocked us from behind. We turned our automobile around and were able to get by the white car the pick-up truck followed us awhile farther. We reported this to the FBI agents who were working in Philadelphia on the investigation. After I spoke with Sheriff Rainey, who denied knowledge of the circumstances of the disappearance of the three men, we obtained permission from Rainey and the FBI to follow the sheriff"s car to the garage where the station wagon (which the men had driven on June 21) was being kept, in order that I could see it. Several young white men, who I believe were workers at the garage, laughed and made screams which are usually referred to as rebel yells when they realized who I was. When we left the garage the sheriff's car was close behind ours, and the blue pick-up truck once more followed after us to the outskirts of town, with the sheriff making no attempt to stop it or question the occupants about the lack of license plates.

1 Testimony of Rita L. Schwerner (1964). In Mississippi Black Paper: Fifty-Seven Negro and White Citizens' Testimony of Police Brutality, the Breakdown of Law and Order and the Corruption of Justice in Mississippi (New York Random House, 1965), pp. 59-60,61, 62-63.


The Mississippi Burning Murders Changed Civil Rights History

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner planned to spend the sticky summer months of 1964 helping Black Mississippians register to vote. The three young civil rights activists hailed from New York: Schwerner was a white, Jewish social worker who participated in civil rights activism through the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Chaney was a Black instructor with CORE and Goodman was a white, Jewish student at Queens College and CORE volunteer.

On June 21, 1964, the bodies of the three men were found in a ditch on a country road near the town of Philadelphia. The “Mississippi Burning” murders, as they came to be known, were some of the most talked-about killings of the civil rights era.

Asked why these killings attracted so much media attention while so many others during the Jim Crow era did not, Clayborne Carson, a professor of history at Stanford University and founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, offered a simple explanation. “Because,” Carson told Teen Vogue, “two of the victims were white.”

The triple murder helped galvanize national outrage over the brutal regime of racist violence that held sway in the Deep South, as well as support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passed that July. They endured as a touchstone of racial politics in the United States — Ronald Reagan infamously launched his 1980 presidential campaign near Philadelphia, Mississippi — and speak to the barriers that still prevent Black Americans from engaging in their fundamental right to vote.

Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were in Mississippi as part of the “Freedom Summer,” an initiative launched by the Freedom Riders movement in which over 700 college students traveled to the state to help register Black voters and support local civil rights organizing. Many of them were involved with CORE, a student organization founded in 1942 on principles of non-violent, direct action inspired by Mahatma Gandhi.

“That’s what the Freedom Riders campaign was all about,” Carson said, “to respond to violence by saying, ‘We’ll just bring more people. You can’t end the movement simply by these violent attacks against civil rights workers. That will simply strengthen the movement because more people will come in spite of the violence.’”

Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman first drove to Ohio to train other Freedom Summer volunteers in voter registration practices, then south to Mississippi. On June 21, 1964, the three were on their way to Meridan, Mississippi, first stopping at Mount Zion Baptist Church, where Schwerner had once worked. The previous week, the church had been burned and several of its Black attendees were beaten by Klu Klux Klan members. After leaving the church, deputy sheriff Cecil Price identified their car as a CORE vehicle and pulled the men over on speeding charges. Schwerner and Goodman were held for “investigation.”

About six hours after Price brought the three men to the Philadelphia jail, they were released with instructions to leave the county. But they never even had the chance.

On June 22, the three men were considered missing and the FBI opened a kidnapping investigation. On June 23, their car was found burned. More than 200 federal agents soon arrived on the scene, and the case quickly attracted widespread media attention. In an interview with the press, Schwerner’s wife, Rita, minced no words about the reason for the national interest in the case: “The slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news. It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm has been sounded.”

The FBI discovered the burned station wagon belonging to the three civil rights workers.

To her point, the bodies of eight other Black murder victims were found during the search for the trio. Two were apparently college students who had been killed weeks earlier, while another was found in a CORE T-shirt, as PBS detailed.

Those individuals “were probably victims of similar violence, but they were Black and those attracted very little attention,” Carson said. “The fact that two of the victims here were white from the North, there was more of a sense of identification with them. And that brought more press attention and more federal attention to this case.”

On August 4, the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were finally found in an earthen dam. The long search was over.

Throughout the summer, the FBI was able to put together the facts of the case:

  • Price, Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, other Klan members of the local chapter had conspired to deny the rights of the three men, setting events in motion with the trumped-up arrests for speeding.
  • Shortly after Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman were released from jail, Price followed them in his car. Two other cars filled with KKK members helped chase the three men down. Chaney was singled out and killed most brutally. The other two men were shot soon after, though Goodman apparently did not die from a shot wound — he was most likely buried alive.

“The killings happened at the beginning of a project to register Black voters in the South Mississippi summer project,” Carson waid. “And before this project even got started, these three people had been jailed and released and then murdered by people that included law enforcement — that included police. People who should have been protecting them [contributed to their deaths].”

The Mississippi legislature decided not to try this case due to “insufficient evidence,” even though several men confessed. While the federal government could not charge any perpetrators with murder, they arrested 21 individuals — including deputy Price —with conspiracy to murder.

Only seven of the men were ultimately convicted. While the harshest sentence carried out was only six years, in 2005, after new evidence was brought to light, Klan member Edgar Ray Killen was arrested for organizing the lynch mob and sentenced to serve 60 years. He died in prison 13 years later, in 2018, of natural causes. The investigation was officially closed in 2016 because, according to former Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, “It’s just gotten to the point that it’s 52 years later and we've done all we can do.”

Edgar Ray Killen was convicted on June 21, 2005 in the 1964 murders

The murders have cast a long shadow over U.S. history, inspiring legislation, art, and reflection. Most critically, the media attention behind them has been credited with pressuring the U.S. government to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 , prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Mississippi Burning, a 1988 movie about the case starring Frances McDormand, introduced a new generation to the murders and the climate in Mississippi at the time. And in 2014, the three men were posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. At the time, Congressman Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi’s second congressional district wrote that the award represented their “ultimate sacrifice” toward “making this country a more perfect Union.”

Carson drew a connection between the work of civil rights organizers like Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, and the uprisings against racist violence that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd in summer 2020, more than four decades later. “I don’t think that people involved in Black Lives Matter have that same sense [of fear] that because they are protesting against it and even [engaging in] civil disobedience, the risk of them getting killed is far less than it was,” he said. “We have had other, obviously lots of police killings, but we haven’t had police killings targeting protestors — non-violent protesters. That kind of violence was, I guess, characteristic of that time…. The level of violence [under the] Jim Crow system in the South was unlike anything that has happened since.”

Carson, who attended the March on Washington at 19 years old, said he was “very proud” of the contemporary protest movement, expressing hope for the future of racial justice organizing. “It shows that young people have learned valuable lessons from the past,” he said. “And they have said that they’re not going to tolerate this sort of thing.”


Burned Station wagon of Missing Civil Rights Activists

To her point, the bodies of eight other Black murder victims were found during the search for the trio. Two were apparently college students who had been killed weeks earlier, while another was found in a CORE T-shirt, as PBS detailed.

Those individuals “were probably victims of similar violence, but they were Black and those attracted very little attention,” Carson said. “The fact that two of the victims here were white from the North, there was more of a sense of identification with them. And that brought more press attention and more federal attention to this case.”

On August 4, the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were finally found in an earthen dam. The long search was over.

Throughout the summer, the FBI was able to put together the facts of the case:

Price, Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, other Klan members of the local chapter had conspired to deny the rights of the three men, setting events in motion with the trumped-up arrests for speeding.

Shortly after Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman were released from jail, Price followed them in his car. Two other cars filled with KKK members helped chase the three men down. Chaney was singled out and killed most brutally. The other two men were shot soon after, though Goodman apparently did not die from a shot wound — he was most likely buried alive.

“The killings happened at the beginning of a project to register Black voters in the South Mississippi summer project,” Carson waid. “And before this project even got started, these three people had been jailed and released and then murdered by people that included law enforcement — that included police. People who should have been protecting them [contributed to their deaths].”

The Mississippi legislature decided not to try this case due to “insufficient evidence,” even though several men confessed. While the federal government could not charge any perpetrators with murder, they arrested 21 individuals — including deputy Price —with conspiracy to murder.

Only seven of the men were ultimately convicted. While the harshest sentence carried out was only six years, in 2005, after new evidence was brought to light, Klan member Edgar Ray Killen was arrested for organizing the lynch mob and sentenced to serve 60 years. He died in prison 13 years later, in 2018, of natural causes. The investigation was officially closed in 2016 because, according to former Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, “It’s just gotten to the point that it’s 52 years later and we've done all we can do.”


What Were the Goals of Freedom Summer?

Freedom Summer had three strategic aims . These were to

  1. Legally register Blacks to vote in the state
  2. Set up &ldquoFreedom Schools&rdquo to educate young people and prepare them for activism and
  3. Establish the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as an integrated alternative to the white supremacist Democratic Party of the state.

Voter registration in such a hostile environment was the primary objective. A full 17,000 African Americans attempted to register over the summer of 1964, yet only 1,200 were successful .

Freedom Summer&rsquos second goal was to improve education for Mississippi&rsquos Black children while exposing the state&rsquos abject failure in this responsibility. Mississippi&rsquos overall spending for education was already the lowest in the nation, but even worse was its allocation to the segregated schools Black students attended &ndash only a quarter of what white schools received. Impressively, the project&rsquos audacious plan attracted more than 200 volunteers to stay in Mississippi as teachers.

The third goal was openly political: establishing the MFDP as an integrated alternative to the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party (MDP). To the activists&rsquo dismay, the Democratic National Convention of 1964 seated the traditional MDP delegates. It took four years, till the 1968 convention, for Democrats to reject segregated delegations .


Should the Mississippi Files Have Been Reopened?

The town of Philadelphia, Miss., can't quite escape its past. Like Selma, Ala., and Howard Beach, N.Y., it has come to symbolize the racial violence that tears at America to this day. In the summer of 1964, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were shot and killed in rural Neshoba County, just outside Philadelphia, by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Although the F.B.I. compiled enough evidence to convict seven men on Federal charges of violating the civil rights of the victims, the State of Mississippi never brought anyone to trial on murder charges. 'ɺ day doesn't go by that I don't think about those boys,'' says Stan Dearman, longtime editor of The Neshoba Democrat, 'ɺnd wonder if justice will be done.''

What, exactly, does justice entail? For some, the Federal convictions were justice enough. In 1989, Mississippi's Secretary of State, Dick Molpus, a Philadelphia native, made an emotional apology at a memorial service attended by relatives of the victims. ''We deeply regret what happpened here 25 years ago,'' Molpus declared. For many, this was more than enough.

Dearman disagrees. He believes that justice requires a murder trial in Neshoba County, and it is possible that he will get his wish. The push for a criminal prosecution may be aided by material in the newly opened files of the State Sovereignty Commission.

Created in 1956 to defend Mississippi from 'ɾncroachment by the Federal Government,'' the commission spent two decades monitoring those suspected of supporting racial integration before it was abolished in 1977. The files, which contain 87,000 names, are mostly about the harassment of ordinary people. Yet they also provide a remarkable window onto a series of Klan killings in the 1960's, including those of Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer, the prominent civil rights leaders, as well as those of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. There are no smoking guns in the Neshoba case -- nothing to indicate that someone in state government had prior knowledge of the murder plot, took part in the crime or tried to cover it up. But the files reveal a deep hatred of the civil rights workers who reached Mississippi in 1964 and a level of surveillance probably unprecedented in the nation's history. Equally important, the files show that state investigators, working independently of the F.B.I., came up with similar information regarding the murder suspects in Neshoba. The Federal Government chose to prosecute on the charges available to it (violation of civil rights) the state chose not to, on the charges in its purview (murder).

The facts in the case are well known. Michael Schwerner, a Cornell graduate, had gone to Mississippi with his wife, Rita, to work for the Congress of Racial Equality. Opening a community center in Meridian, the young couple taught black children to read and write while encouraging their parents to register and vote. James Chaney, 21, was a frequent visitor at the center and quickly became Schwerner's confidant. In June 1964, Schwerner and Chaney drove to Oxford, Ohio, to help train volunteers for a huge voter-registration drive in Mississippi, known as Freedom Summer. There they befriended Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old white college student from New York. Reaching Mississippi on June 20, the three men spent the next day inspecting the ruins of a black church near Philadelphia that had been firebombed by the Klan.

That afternoon they were arrested for ''speeding'' by Neshoba County's deputy sheriff, Cecil Price. According to extensive testimony at the Federal trial, Price sent out word that those arrested included ''Goatee'' -- the Klan's code name for Schwerner, who had been marked for death by the Imperial Wizard, Sam Bowers (who was just convicted for the murder of Vernon Dahmer on Aug. 21). Price held the civil rights workers long enough for Edgar Ray Killen, a preacher and, according to the F.B.I., local Klan leader, to round up a posse. As Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman headed down Route 19 that evening, Price tailed them in his cruiser, followed by two carloads of Klansmen. After a frantic chase, the three men were caught, taken to an isolated spot on Rock Cut Road, murdered in quick succession and buried below an earthen dam on the farm of Olen Burrage, one of Philadelphia's wealthiest citizens. Their Ford wagon was set ablaze.

The three bodies were discovered six weeks later, following one of the largest F.B.I. manhunts in history. Near the end of the year, Federal agents arrested 19 men for conspiring to deny Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman their civil rights. After numerous delays, a Federal jury convicted Sam Bowers, Cecil Price and five other defendants. Three more went free when the jury deadlocked, including Killen the rest were acquitted.

Many people believe that state officials had no desire to see an explosive murder trial in Neshoba County, where the probable outcome -- mass acquittals -- would embarrass Mississippi once again. They realized, too, that a trial could easily unmask their own roles in this tragedy -- the roles of leaders who fanned the hysterical, and ultimately lethal, resistance to civil rights in the South's most segregated state. The Neshoba killings remain officially ''unsolved.'' The leading suspects are still alive.

Although ''local people'' like Evers and Dahmer formed the backbone of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, it is Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman who remain the most visible martyrs to that cause. Fairly or not, their case offers the best chance for redemption and closure on the national stage.

In the newly released files is a 1964 ''talk'' by Erle Johnston, the Sovereignty Commission director, to a group of business leaders, marked '➫solutely Restricted,'' about preparations to neutralize the Council of Federated Organizations, or COFO, the umbrella group behind Mississippi's Freedom Summer. ''Through our investigative staff and other sources of information,'' he said, ''the Sovereignty Commission has been fully informed about COFO's plans.'' Johnston wasn't boasting. The files show that commission informants had thoroughly infiltrated COFO.

One informant supplied copies of the Freedom Summer application forms, which included a biographical sketch of each civil rights worker and -- more important -- a photograph. Others forwarded the notes they had scribbled at COFO meetings. The most valuable source, known as 'ɺgent X,'' attended the COFO training sessions in Ohio and also supplied the descriptions and tag numbers of COFO vehicles in Mississippi, which the Sovereignty Commission then distributed to local police officers, many of whom, as in Neshoba, belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. One such vehicle, 'ɺ ❣ Ford Station Wagon bearing Mississippi license plate number H 25503,'' was the car Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were driving when they were stopped for speeding by Deputy Price.

Some view Agent X, identified in recent press reports as R.L. Bolden, a local black man with ties to the civil rights movement, as an accessory to murder. (Bolden has refused to be interviewed.) Yet Agent X was hardly alone in putting the lives of these civil rights workers at risk. The Sovereignty Commission files reveal that the Schwerners were being monitored by law enforcement within weeks of their arrival in Mississippi. A detailed report by the commission's top investigator, Andrew Hopkins, on March 23, 1964, gives precise descriptions of both Schwerners, their local address, choice of clothing ('ɽungarees'' and a 'ɼORE button'') and current employment (encouraging blacks to vote). It concludes that the Meridian police are ''keeping these subjects under surveillance and are getting information from reliable informants.''

The Sovereignty Commission dispatched Hopkins to Philadelphia a few days after the civil rights workers disappeared. His confidential reports, written by someone who changed his thinking over time, provide a unique look at the murders. A devoted segregationist, with strong ties to the local police, Hopkins at first accepted the prevailing white opinion that the three 'ɺgitators'' had faked their disappearance to gain publicity for Freedom Summer. ''There is still no physical evidence that [they] have met with foul play,'' he noted on July 3, ''other than the burned out car which could very easily be part of a hoax.''

Hopkins resented the F.B.I.'s presence in Neshoba County. He complained that the bureau did not seek the aid of Mississippi officials, and he accused individual agents of browbeating suspects. Yet the more Hopkins learned from his informants, the better the F.B.I.'s case appeared. State investigators, using multiple sources, were told that six to eight Klansmen were directly involved in the killings, including ''law enforcement people'' and 'ɺ minister.'' Hopkins found that the bureau had 'ɾvery one'' of these suspects under close surveillance. On Aug. 6, two days after the bodies were discovered, he admitted that the F.B.I. did not need his information about the case -- ''they already had most of it.''

His report of Aug. 6, one of the key documents in these files, appears to contain what until now was the bureau's most closely guarded secret -- the identity of the person who broke open the case by revealing where the bodies were buried. All that had been known was that the F.B.I. had paid the individual $30,000 and had promised to protect his identi-ty. ''I have information from a confidential source,'' Hopkins wrote, ''that Mr. Olen Burrage . . .directed the F.B.I. to the spot where the bodies were buried.. . .The informant stated that Mr. Burrage received $30,000 from the F.B.I. for this information.'' Burrage was indicted on Federal conspiracy charges, but not convicted. (Burrage did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

When the 19 arrests were made, Hopkins was mildly surprised. He had expected an additional police official to be booked, but he hadn't imagined so many arrests beyond the actual participants at Rock Cut Road. His final report in 1964 describes the F.B.I.'s case in meticulous detail and criticizes the bureau on one major count -- its strong-arm tactics against suspects who refused to confess.

Philadelphia, a town of about 7,000 people, looks today much as it did on that blistering Sunday afternoon 34 years ago when Cecil Price made his fateful arrest. The old markers are there -- the red-brick county courthouse, the shops lining the main square, the storefront offices of the lawyers who represented the Neshoba defendants at the Federal trial. The big difference around Philadelphia is the Silver Star Resort and Casino, three miles west of town. Owned by the Choctaw Indians and opened in 1994, it provides Neshoba County with millions in revenue and hundreds of jobs.

If the Silver Star represents the glittering future, then the civil rights killings mark the bitter past. Most whites say they believe that a murder trial today would needlessly reopen old wounds. A lawyer tells me: ''We're a small town. A few years ago, my little girl got on the wrong school bus and was lost. Cecil Price spent hours searching for her until she was found.'' He adds: ''I believe that murder must be punished, but I just don't know what good it would do to put Cecil in jail again after all these years.''

A trial, however, would have real meaning for local blacks like the Rev. Clint Collier, a Methodist minister who spent much of his life battling for civil rights. For his labors, Collier was arrested, fired from his teaching job and swindled out of much of his land. Today, at 89, he vividly recalls the meetings with Schwerner, who spoke about the prospect of being killed, and the mean swagger of local police officers. He remembers Cecil Price telling him, several years ago, about being 'ɻrainwashed'' by the Klan.

''Have you repented?'' Collier asked him. 'ɺre you teaching your boy to do right?'' Price supposedly said yes. ''That's good,'' Collier declared. ''That's all you can do.''

In 1989, Collier listened with disappointment as Dick Molpus apologized for the killings. ''I want punishment,'' Collier says, pausing to let the anger pass. ''I want justice.''

Edgar Ray Killen still lives in Neshoba County. I phoned him at his farm. He told me that he didn't give interviews, yet he seemed in no hurry to hang up. After chatting briefly, we agreed to meet at a local store. Killen and his wife arrived in a rusted pickup truck. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat, with a plug of tobacco in his cheek, he looked remarkably fit for a man of 73 -- lean, well-muscled, deeply tanned. He shook hands warmly and invited me, my 20-year-old son, Matthew, and the photographer who was with us to supper.

Killen lives in the hills southeast of Philadelphia, a stone's throw from Rock Cut Road. ''I've always preached the same way,'' he said. ''I brag on Jesus.'' Like some white Southerners, Killen viewed the civil rights movement as part of a Communist conspiracy to replace biblical truths with godless principles. In 1964, according to F.B.I. files, he became a founding member -- and chief recruiter -- of the local Ku Klux Klan.

According to testimony at the 1967 Federal trial, Killen was not among the group that killed Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman on Rock Cut Road. Yet several witnesses swore that he had recruited them for the murders. ''Reverend Killen said they had three of those civil rights workers locked up and we had to. . .tear their butts up,'' one said. Another witness recalled a conversation with the preacher just after the civil rights workers disappeared. He ''told me that they had been shot, that they were dead. . .and buried in a dam about 15 feet deep.''

We sat in a living room crammed with religious items. ''I'm a right-winger who supports the Constitution as written by the Founding Fathers,'' Killen said. Asked about the murders, he replied: ''Those boys were Communists who went to a Communist training school. I'm sorry they got themselves killed. But I can't show remorse for something I didn't do.''

Having said exactly what he intended, the preacher got up to check on supper. At that moment, his youngest brother, Don, arrived, and the evening took a darker turn. Shaking my hand, Don announced that he didn't like blacks and homosexuals (in terms not printable in this magazine). He told me that President Clinton was a homosexual and that Martin Luther King Jr. had been one, too. The preacher joined in, using a racial slur to describe King's 'ɼommunist'' sympathies.

The remark surprised me, for he had been careful to this point. With the formal interview now over, another side of Preacher Killen appeared. For the next three hours, over steak and french fries, iced tea and Kool-Aid, the brothers ranted -- about ''scientific facts'' (lesbians lean to the left in the womb), anthropology (blacks are mud people who belong in Africa), slavery (a good thing) and current affairs (almost every black in the county has no job, a boom box and his car up on blocks).

Close to midnight, the preacher walked us to the door. There had been no threats or outbursts that evening, although he did ask if we were nervous about winding up on Rock Cut Road, just like ''those boys'' in the 1960's. As we left his farm and headed down the narrow blacktop in total darkness, one thought came eerily to mind: this was the last thing that Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman saw in the moments before they died.

Will these murders be prosecuted? I posed this question to Mississippi's State Attorney General, Mike Moore, 46, a moderate Democrat with a solid record on civil rights. His office is now aiding local prosecutors in the Vernon Dahmer killing, and the Neshoba case would seem the logical next step.

Shortly after taking office in 1988, Moore faced pressure to investigate the Neshoba murders. Hollywood had just released ''Mississippi Burning,'' which glorified the F.B.I. for solving the case, and The Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi's leading newspaper, urged Moore to convene a grand jury. The evidence is ''laid out for the world to see,'' it said, 'ɺnd has been since the 1967 trial.'' But it wasn't that simple. Moore learned that some of the physical evidence -- the bullets, fingerprints, the victims' clothing -- was missing. At the same time, the cases of Evers and Dahmer gained local momentum, pushing Neshoba to the side.

Many believe that a conviction of Bowers in the Dahmer case is akin to his conviction in the Neshoba case, since Bowers was the driving force behind most Klan murders in Mississippi. As Moore says: ''Sometimes a man kills 10 people and we get him for 1. But justice is served in the 9 other cases.''


BLACK HISTORY MONTH 2015: Whites in the Civil Rights Movement who fought, and sometimes, died for the cause

Driven by empathy, housewife and mother Viola Liuzzo went from Michigan to Alabama 50 years ago to support the historic Selma to Montgomery march. But she never saw her family or home again – becoming the only white woman killed outright in the battle for equality for black Americans.

The staunch refusal of Southern states, towns, cities – and many of their citizens – to address the lack of civil and voting rights for African-Americans ultimately spurred protests and support from a wide range of Americans.

Aiding the increasingly vocal call for justice from African-Americans, many whites – such as Liuzzo, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, James Reeb, Jonathan Daniels, Jim Letherer, Anne Braden, Peter Norman, Juliette Morgan and William Moore – answered the appeal. They joined the American civil rights movement, working alongside their black countrymen and women – and sometimes taking up the fight alone.

Reminiscent of today's recent and continuing nationwide demonstrations uniting blacks, whites and people of other races, the civil rights movement saw blacks and whites working to combat institutionalized discrimination and, in some U.S. states, legal segregation.

Liuzzo, who hailed from Detroit and was a mother of five and the wife of a Michigan Teamster union official, was shot to death in her car on March 25, 1965, while shuttling fellow activists from the historic march. Liuzzo's passenger, covered with her blood, played dead and waited until the attackers left before going for help.

The 2004 Paola di Florio documentary "Home of the Brave" examined Liuzzo's murder and subsequent misinformation that sullied the civil rights activist's heroic reputation and tormented her family. Her family and others have long believed the defamation diverted attention from the FBI informant who was among the attackers, but failed to alert authorities and prevent the murder.

"In spite of the responsibility for five kids and not being black, she empathized. And empathy is the most revolutionary emotion," women's rights activist Gloria Steinem said in the documentary.

African-American James Chaney, 20, and his white, Jewish allies Andrew Goodman, 20 and Michael Schwerner, 21, are unforgettable for their work registering voters in Mississippi – and for their murders on June 21, 1964. Their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam, after the three were beaten and shot at close range.

"There were not just three men who were part of a struggle," Rita Schwerner Bender, wife of Michael Schwerner, told the Associated Press. "There were not just three men who were killed. You know, the struggle in this country probably started with the first revolt on a slave ship, and it continues now."

In 2014, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama.

Schwerner and Goodman two of the sizable number of Jewish Americans who took African-Americans' civil rights movement seriously enough to get personally involved. But white volunteers, and causalities, came from many different religions.

James Reeb, a 38-year-old Unitarian Universalist minister, came to Selma, Ala., from Massachusetts in 1965 to support voting rights for African-Americans. On March 9, Reeb and two other Unitarian ministers were savagely beaten by a group of white men. Reeb died on March 11.

Moved by the injustice and heeding King's calls for help from clergy members, Jonathan Daniels came to Alabama. The Episcopal seminary student defied the order of Bishop Charles Carpenter, the Alabama clergyman who banned out-of-state civil rights workers from coming into the Alabama to aid blacks.

In August 1965, Daniels was arrested for participating in a demonstration. On Aug. 20, after a six-day stint in a filthy jail, Daniels and other civil rights workers – headed to a grocery store for soft drinks – were confronted outside by the shop by a man who ordered them way from the establishment and then fired at the group with a shotgun.

A Roman Catholic priest, Richard Morrisroe, was wounded and Daniels was killed – while reportedly pushing aside teenage civil rights worker Ruby Sales and taking the fatal shotgun blast.

Civil rights supporter Jim Letherer is honored at the Selma to Montgomery Interpretive Center Museum in Alabama, which has a life-size statue of the amputee. With a big heart and a tenacious spirit, he trooped with King and fellow marchers in many a Deep South protest despite having losing his right leg to cancer. During the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, Letherer – who used crutches – helped keep spirits high by unswervingly shouting out cadence for his remaining leg, by chanting, "Left, left, left!"

In a November 1967 letter responding to King's appeal to join him for a Christmas march, Letherer wrote, "The hope of having a march on a Christmas Eve is very dark, not only because of the money situation, but this old body of mine is tired and worn. The door is not closed yet as there is a little time left and I am trying to put a few things together in the hopes of doing it." He signed off, "Love and Freedom, P.S., Merry Christmas to the CIA man reading your mail also," mocking U.S. government's surveillance of African-American leaders during this period and beyond.

Beginning in the mid-1950s and continuing in subsequent decades, Southern-born civil rights leader Ann Braden gave her all to the movement, remaining a steadfast activist.

Described as "one of the great figures of our time" by historian Jacquelyn Hall, Braden died in 2006, "leaving a remarkable legacy as a grass-roots organizer, committed journalist, movement strategist, social chronicler, teacher and mentor to three generations of social justice activists." The Braden Institute of Social Justice Research at the University of Louisville was established shortly after her death.

During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Australian sprinter Peter Norman joined his fellow athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium to receive their medals while Carlos and Smith gave the black power salute, Norman wore a badge declaring his support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights and organization members Smith and Carlos.

For agreeing with the organization's quest to combat racism in sports and fight racial segregation in the U.S. and South Africa, Norman was ostracized in Australia and denied opportunities to compete in the 1972 Munich Olympics and other athletic meets.

Norman, who had Smith and Carlos among his pallbearers at his 2006 funeral, received a posthumous apology from the Australian parliament in 2012 for the damage that was done to his life and career.

Wealthy, educated Southern belle Juliette Morgan suffered unbearably for courageously trying to desegregate the South. Over the years, the Montgomery Public Library staffer, who began voicing her objections to segregation as far back as the 1930s, complained about the mistreatment of blacks on buses in Montgomery, Ala.

She witnessed a black woman undergoing the racist ritual of paying her fare at the front of the bus and then exiting to enter through the rear door bus, thereby confining her to the "back of the bus." Too often, drivers would cruelly drive off before the black passenger could enter the rear door. But not this time! Morgan pulled the emergency cord, got the bus stopped and bluntly announced the unfairness of the act. She did this every time she witnessed it.

"In 1939, 16 years before the famous Montgomery bus boycott, Morgan began writing letters to the Montgomery Advertiser, the city's local newspaper, denouncing the horrible injustices she witnessed on the city buses," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Teaching Tolerance" website. "In these letters, she said segregation was un-Christian and wrong, and the citizens of Montgomery should do something about it. The response was immediate: Morgan lost her job at a local bookstore."


Edgar Ray Killen Sentenced For Civil Rights Workers Murders

The murders have cast a long shadow over U.S. history, inspiring legislation, art, and reflection. Most critically, the media attention behind them has been credited with pressuring the U.S. government to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 , prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Mississippi Burning, a 1988 movie about the case starring Frances McDormand, introduced a new generation to the murders and the climate in Mississippi at the time. And in 2014, the three men were posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. At the time, Congressman Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi’s second congressional district wrote that the award represented their “ultimate sacrifice” toward “making this country a more perfect Union.”

Carson drew a connection between the work of civil rights organizers like Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, and the uprisings against racist violence that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd in summer 2020, more than four decades later. “I don’t think that people involved in Black Lives Matter have that same sense [of fear] that because they are protesting against it and even [engaging in] civil disobedience, the risk of them getting killed is far less than it was,” he said. “We have had other, obviously lots of police killings, but we haven’t had police killings targeting protestors — non-violent protesters. That kind of violence was, I guess, characteristic of that time…. The level of violence [under the] Jim Crow system in the South was unlike anything that has happened since.”

Carson, who attended the March on Washington at 19 years old, said he was “very proud” of the contemporary protest movement, expressing hope for the future of racial justice organizing. “It shows that young people have learned valuable lessons from the past,” he said. “And they have said that they’re not going to tolerate this sort of thing.”


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