On June 21, 1964, three young civil-rights workers – 24-year-old Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20 – were murdered in rural Mississippi by Ku Klux Klan members working in coordination with local law-enforcement officials.
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The three were in the area investigating the burning of a church in Longdale, Mississippi five days earlier. They were stopped by police, who were already on the lookout for Schwerner, a veteran activist, and arrested. Later that same evening, after being arrested and then released, the three were ambushed by two carloads of Klan members and shot to death.
Their bodies were buried within an earthen dam on a nearby farm and only found 44 days later.
The killings of Schwerner and Goodman, both of them Jewish university students from New York, and Chaney, a black union worker from nearby Meridian, Mississippi, volunteering with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), took place during “Freedom Summer.” That project, run by a coalition of civil-rights organizations, was dedicated to registering African-Americans in Mississippi to vote. Like other states in the South, Mississippi had a number of procedures in place at the time that made it extremely difficult for blacks to exercise their franchise. In fact, in 1962, only 6.2 percent of blacks in the state were registered to vote.
During Freedom Summer, some 1,000 university students from the North, 90 percent of them white and a large portion of them Jewish, were recruited, along with thousands of black volunteers from the South, to fan out across Mississippi to register voters. They also set up improvised Freedom Schools, to teach literacy skills and civics, among other things, and offered health and legal services to a population that was systematically denied some of the most basic rights of being an American.
The influx of volunteers from outside the region stirred up deep resentments among local white residents. In many cases, law-enforcement officials were themselves members of racist organizations, and they certainly abetted the locals. Eventually it was only with the involvement of federal authorities, and the passage of a slew of new laws under President Lyndon B. Johnson, that the rule of law began to be enforced in Mississippi and other states in the Deep South.
Schwerner, the oldest of the three victims, had grown up in a middle-class Jewish family in Pelham, New York. At the time of his murder, he was a graduate student in social work at Columbia University. Both he and his wife, Rita Schwerner, had been working with CORE since the previous year, and in the summer of 1964, they had been assigned by the organization to set up a community center in Meridian, MS.
Andrew Goodman had grown up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in an intellectual and politically active Jewish family, and attended the progressive Walden School. At Queens College, he had become interested in both acting and anthropology. He was sent to Mississippi after undergoing activist training in Ohio.
On the day he was killed, Goodman sent his parents a postcard from the town from which, later that night, the sheriff would dispatch him and his colleagues to their deaths. Apparently intending to calm any fears they had about his mission, or maybe just referring to the local activists who received him, he wrote: “Dear Mom and Dad, I have arrived safely in Meridian, Miss. This is a wonderful town … and our reception was very good. All my love, Andy.”
James Earl Chaney had grown up in Meridian, and after finishing high school, he had become an apprentice in a trade union. He also had been active in civil-rights activities since at least 1962, a dangerous avocation for a black man in the South. He worked with CORE on its voter-education drives and also acted as a local coordinator with out-of-state activists.
Within hours of their disappearance that Sunday, colleagues of the three men began making phone calls to local authorities in an effort to locate them. The officials they spoke with claimed to have no knowledge of their whereabouts. By 6 A.M. the following morning, FBI investigators had become involved in trying to determine what had happened to them.
It was only after several members of the Klan turned informant that the fate of the three was known. Their bodies were dug up on August 4, 1964 – Chaney’s showed that he had been beaten and tortured before he was shot. At the same time, the bodies of another eight civil-rights workers, all of them black – and therefore never the object of extensive investigations – were also found, apparently also murder victims.
In part because the search for the men went on so long, the case was in national headlines much of the summer. On July 2, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by Congress, and two days after the bodies were found, on August 6, the Voting Act of 1965 was approved. The two sets of laws empowered the federal government with enforcing the rights that were theoretically guaranteed all Americans under the Constitution.
Twenty-one different men were eventually arrested and tried in federal court on a variety of charges related to the harassment and intimidation of the victims, but it was not until 2005, more than 40 years after the crime, that someone was tried for murder in a state court. That year, Edgar Ray Killen, the man who planned and led the killing of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, was tried and convicted – on the 41st anniversary of the crime -- and sentenced to three 20-year prison terms (he was then 80 years old).