It is the date on which three young men, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, "disappeared." All three were involved in Freedom Summer, the attempt to register - and educate - Blacks in Mississippi.
They had been arrested on false charges, released from the jail in Neshoba County and ordered to leave the county, but then re-arrested as they were living the county by deputy sheriff Cecil Price and held until a murder squad from the KKK arrived. They were murdered, their car burned and dumped into a swamp, and their bodies buried in an earthen dam.
It was not the first murder of people involved in Civil Rights, nor would it be the last.
They had gone to Philadelphia to examine the scene of a church burning - one of almost two dozen black churches torched by the KKK in an attempt to suppress, terrorize (is there a more appropriate word?) and intimidate and thereby crush the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi.
The disappearance caused a national outrage. Lyndon Johnson had to politically threaten J. Edgar Hoover to get the FBI to investigate, and 150 agents came into the state to pursue the case. Navy divers were also used, and they found the bodies of 7 other blacks who had been murdered by the KKK.
The bodies were found in an earthen dam on August 4. By then, Lyndon Johnson had signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which had been approved by the Conference Committee of House and Senate members on June 19, two days before the disappearance.
There are a couple of things worth noting. First, the Neshoba County Fair opened on August 10, only a few miles from Old Jolly Farm where the bodies had been discovered in a dam the week before. Despite his personal popularity in Neshoba County, Barry Goldwater did NOT make his scheduled appearance, saying he could not fit it into his schedule. Even George Wallace passed on the 1964 Fair, usually an obligatory stop for politicians seeking votes statewide in Mississippi. Contrast with this the kickoff of Ronald Reagan's 1980 general election campaign at that same Neshoba County Fair, and perhaps two things should be apparent: first, using that as a kickoff was clearly intended as a signal fraught with racism, especially given that the text of Reagan's remarks were a defense of "states rights" - the term used in defense of their obstructionism by Southern racists. Second, given that 1980 event, one has to wonder whether Reagan's speech at a cemetary in Bitburg containing the graves of SS was purely happenstance.
But enough about Reagan. Please keep reading.
There are many twists and turns in the case legally. And it extended for more than 4 decades. While there were convictions in 1967 under Federal law, some of the perpetrators were acquitted, among them a preacher - years later we learned that one female juror refused to convict a preacher. Reflect for a moment on the kind of hate that must have have been heard from his pulpit for him to have actively been involved in such a conspiracy, then reflect upon our own time, when hatred is still heard from pulpits - sometimes still because of the color of one's skins, other times because of one's religion, and certainly because of one's sexual orientation. The struggle for civil rights has never ended, and will not end so long as some use their religion as a means of fomenting hatred and discrimination towards others.
That preacher was Edgar Ray Killen. in 1967 he benefited from that juror, had a hung jury, and the federal prosecutor decided not to retry the case. In part because of the efforts of a high school teacher and three of his students for the National History Day competition, Killeen was eventually convicted. In conjunction with the 40th Anniversary of the murders he allowed himself to be interviewed by the students. Their investigations also uncovered additional evidence. The ensuing public pressure led Mississippi to prosecute Killen for murder, and he was in his 80s convicted of three counts of manslaughter. He appealed on the grounds that no jury of his peers would have convicted him at the time - undoubtedly true - but the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld his conviction and sentence of consecutive terms of 20 years imprisonment for each death.
This case carries special meaning for me. I had been active in civil rights in 1963, the summer before I entered Haverford College at the age of 17. I explored going to Mississippi as part of Freedom Summer, but my father told me that if I did he would refuse to continue to pay for my education. One person I knew from Haverford did go. Our own Meteor Blades participated in that effort.
It is not that I consider I might have been at risk - although I could have been. Rather it was that in a sense those deaths reminded me of the price that some have paid in order that others get access to rights that should be theirs already. Too often when we rightly thank those who go into harm's way in the military tend to forget the service of those whose quiet courage also put them at risk of serious harm or death. That was true of those who demonstrated for labor rights. It was true as well for those in Civil Rights.
We should remember that we have a history of terrorism in this country. The original KKK, founded by former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose troops committed the Fort Pillow Massacre - slaughtering Black Union troops who had surrendered - cannot be described as other than terrorist, and it is to our nation's eternal shame that Birth of a Nation, the film by D. W. Griffiths based on a book and play called "The Clansman" was screened at the White House by President T. Woodrow Wilson who supposedly praised it (although there is some dispute about this by saying "like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." The movie caused such an uproar that Griffiths tried to make up for it by his subsequent film "Intolerance" but one could argue the damage was already done. The film was released in February 1915, and by the end of the year the Klan had been reestablished in Stone Mountain Georgia (why M. L. King referenced that location in his 1963 speech).
There is much of our history that young people today do not learn. Certainly it is rare that they learn about the history of the labor movement. Often we do not learn about the brutality and dishonesty of much of history towards the First Peoples, the Native Americans. Gay bashing was common, even among law enforcement, until Stonewall - remember that incident occurred when the NYPD raided a gay bar only this time the gay community decided to push back.
Too much of the Civil Rights Movement is unknown except through the eyes of Hollywood, which often distorts what happened. Hollywood has several times addressed this lynching - there have been three movies or tv movies on this case. It has appeared in song from the likes of Phil Ochs and others.
But do we really today grasp what was happening? People in law enforcement were actively involved in conspiracy and murder. Major figures in American politics and government either were opposed to equal rights (Robert Byrd of WV was the major figure in the filibuster earlier that summer against the 1964 Civil Rights Act) or at best reluctant to intervene (J. Edgar Hoover).
The failure of leaders to speak out against the use of violence and intimidation allowed some to resort to it, with tragic consequences.
The rhetoric then came from pulpits like that of Edgar Killen, in conversations in coffee shops and lodges and bars. Today we have rhetoric on talk radio and tv of hatred and violence. The speech may be protected, but surely we can demand of those who seek political authority or claim moral authority that they condemn it, lest we see our own generation's equivalent of what happened in Neshoba County Mississippi on this day 48 years ago.
Some people resist acknowledging history, or try to "whitewash" it: in1989, on the 25th anniversary of the murders, Congress passed a non-binding resolution honoring the three slaughtered Civil Rights workers, but Senator Trent Lott and the rest of the Mississippi delegation refused to vote for it.
Racial hatred is evident again in our society.
So are the other hatreds already referenced.
There are those who seek to role back the gains won by struggle, by demonstration, by self-sacrifice. Some of those who seek such roll backs serve in Congress or on Courts of great influence.
Geroge Santayana warned us that
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat itIf we do not study and learn the past, including where we struggled against the baser elements of human nature and American society, what then will we repeat?
On this date in 1964.
Fortyeight years ago.
Three names that should not be forgotten.