Three civil rights workers were brutally murdered 50 years ago tonight.
James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were all shot to death in Mississippi Goodman and Schwerner were shot once at point blank range and Chaney was beaten and shot three times. Their bodies were partially buried in earthen dam. It took 44 days after the murders for Federal investigators to find their bodies.
On June 16th members of the Ku Klux Klan burned down the Mt. Zion Methodist Church. This church was of interest to the Klan because set up to be a Freedom School, part of an educational drive to register African Americans to vote. The Klan members beat several African Americans present at the church and set it ablaze. In the aftermath it became apparent that the church in Neshoba County was chosen in particular to lure more CORE volunteers to the area, in particular Schwerner who was of interest because of his earlier help in a boycott of Mississippi store, his work with the Freedom Summer and setting up Freedom Schools. The ruse worked.
Schwerner was in Ohio at a CORE training session with Chaney, an African American Native Mississippian, and Goodman a white Jewish New Yorker when the fire happened. The trio returned to Mississippi on June 20th and left to investigate the Mt. Zion Methodist Church fire. They told other civil rights workers to look for them if they weren't back by 4 PM.
They successfully made it to the church and were on their way back to Meridian when they were stopped by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price on speeding charges (after one their tires mysteriously blew on the highway). They were held in the Neshoba County jail for seven hours. They were not given the right to use a telephone.
They were imprisoned until after nightfall and then released. Their murders were a coordinated effort between members of the Neshoba County sheriffs department and the Imperial Knights of the Klu Klux Klan.
The disappearance of the three Civil Rights workers garnered national attention. Their images were splashed across newspapers nation wide and garnered press from of all three television networks. Members of SNCC and COFO phoned the FBI asking for help in the investigation but it took the intervention of Attorney General Robert F Kennedy to spur the agency into action.
The FBI code named the case MIBURN, or Mississippi Burning.
On June 23rd the remnants of their burned out station wagon was found.
An informant eventually passed along a tip to the where abouts of Chaney, Schwerzer and Goodmans bodies.
However during the initial search of rivers and swampland of the surrounding area the FBI discovered the bodies eight African American males. Only three of those victims have been identified and all were known as having been active in the civil rights movement (the youngest was 14 years old).
Suspects in the murders were identified but Mississippi prosecutors declined to charge anyone in the case. It was left up to federal authorities to prosecute the case, 18 people were charged with conspiring to denying the victims of their civil rights by murder. Seven people were eventually convicted and none served more then six years.
In 2005 Mississippi finally took action in the case with its first prosecution and eventual conviction of Edgar Ray Killen.
In 1989 Congress passed a nonbinding resolution honoring James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The entire Mississippi Congressional delegation, including Senator Trent Lott, refused to vote or it.
June 22 at 9:40 PM: I owe a debt of gratitude to the community for their reception to this diary. So much more can be written on this case and so much more has been. So many Civil Rights workers were grievously injured and killed, not just during the Freedom Summer, but before and after. We owe them a debt of gratitude. Visit the SPLC's Page on The Civil Rights Memorial Again thank you for reading.