On June 29, 1964, the FBI began distributing these pictures of civil rights workers, from left, Michael Schwerner, 24, of New York, James Chaney, 21, from Mississippi, and Andrew Goodman, 20, of New York, who disappeared near Philadelphia, Miss., June 21, 1964. The three civil rights workers, part of the 'Freedom Summer' program, were abducted, killed and buried in an earthen dam in rural Neshoba County. (AP Photo/FBI)
One of the most heinous crimes during the civil rights movement happened the year after I was born, 1964. It's still unsolved, but an anonymous donor is offering $100K reward for information leading to murder charges.
Has our society learned anything about intolerance, bigotry and violence and the rights of fellow citizens? Sometimes it seems we have, other times it's disheartening how history repeats itself, just with a different cast of characters.
"There are people who have been harboring some of this information for a long time. There was a lot of common knowledge about this," said the Rev. James White, treasurer of the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference, which is overseeing the reward money.
Nineteen men, many of them Klansmen, were indicted. Seven were convicted of federal civil rights violations and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 10 years.
But the state never brought murder charges and none of the men convicted served more than six years.
Of those indicted, only seven are still alive, said Jacob Ray, a spokesman for Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who has reopened an investigation of the slayings.
It's sad and enraging that the kind of blind prejudice, hatred and violence at the root of these murders existed within my lifetime, and in fact, still exists today. It was only 1998 when James Byrd was dragged to his death in Texas by sadistic thugs that watched as his limbs were torn from his body. It was that same year that Matthew Shepard was violently beaten to a pulp and tied to a fence and left to die (oh wait, ABC said it wasn't a hate crime). It's not just about the South or rural Texas either. The brutal 1982 murder of transit worker Willie Turks by a "wilding" gang of Bensonhurst thugs in NYC (Turks made the "mistake" of walking through "the wrong neighborhood") proves that hate knows no geographic boundaries.
The kind of venom and bigotry we hear from the Right about gays today is a sad echo of ignorance from the past, no matter how the wingnuts try to spin it. It has to stop. There are countless hate crimes that go unnoticed by the media. We cannot let the moral lesson of crimes like the Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney murders go untaught -- we have come so far, and have so much more yet to learn about the most base impulses of human nature.
These three young men also taught us a lesson of how people can work together for a common goal -- basic human rights. I fear we are in such fractured political times that we have lost sight of what we can accomplish together.