As a result Michael Schwerner (1939–64) and Andrew Goodman (1943–64), both Jewish New Yorkers, and James Chaney (1943–64) a black man from Meridian Mississippi, were working with the Congress of Racial Equality on a voter registration drive based in Meridian. It was June 1964, the Freedom Summer, a time of left wing activism and right wing resistance. [The worst of the Vietnam War was yet to come, as I recall it].
Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney may have been young and naïve, but were they totally ignorant of the risks they were taking? No, it must have been clear to everyone - during the Freedom Summer, dozens of black churches, homes and businesses were firebombed. Perhaps they weighed up the risks and decided that their cause had higher priority than their personal safety. Schwerner at least was adult enough to understand that he had been closely surveilled by the Ku Klux Klan, after he and his wife began working in a field office and a community centre for blacks in Miss.
Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, FBI missing persons poster, 1964
The Klansmen murdered the three activists in June 1964, then bulldozed the bodies into a farmer’s dam near Philadelphia Miss and went home, certain that proof of their crime would never be found. But they were wrong.
Horrified students across the USA watched as F.B.I. agents located a mangled station wagon in a swamp; it had taken 44 days after the men had disappeared, before the bodies were located. The two white bodies had been shot in the head; the black body had been tortured and mutilated. But the police found that no witnesses came forward and little evidence could be gathered from the crime scene.
Although their identities were known locally, none of the Klansmen involved in the murders was ever charged by the state. The only prosecution was in a Federal court where 19 men, including the County Sheriff, Deputy Sheriff and a senior Klansman, were tried for conspiring to violate the activists’ civil rights. As you can see, the sheriff and the other defendants seemed very relaxed and confident of their acquital.
Deputy sheriff Price and Sheriff Rainey at their trial, 1967
And nothing much changed. In the same year, 1967, Sam Bower’s White Knights began to target Jewish institutions in Mississippi. In particular he ordered attacks on both Jackson's synagogue and its Rabbi Nussbaum who was an outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement. In the end both Congregation Beth Israel in Jackson (Sept 1967) and Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson (May 1968) were bombed to pieces by the Ku Klux Klan.
The only contemporary memorial that I could find in Philadelphia was at Mt Nebo Missionary Baptist Church; the black community memorialised the three young men with a respectful engraved stone. [There are more now].
It would be interesting to know if the 1988 film Mississippi Burning changed minds and influenced people. It must have. In 1991 some of Cornell’s graduates finally proposed that students should raise money to install a stained glass window in Sage Chapel, to honour the three civil-rights workers. The plaque beneath the window memorialises those "who were slain during the 1964 voter registration drive in Mississippi and all the others who died for the advancement of civil rights and racial equality in our country." My only complaint was that the memorial was not installed earlier, when the young men’s parents and grandparents might have still been alive.
Legal retribution was even slower. It took till June 2005 before Edgar Killen, Baptist preacher and sawmill operator, was sentenced to 60 years in gaol on manslaughter charges for ensuring the deaths of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney.
Memorial at Mt Nebo Missionary Baptist Church, Philadelphia Miss
Searching Historical Horizons blog noted that the cities of Philadelphia and Meridian Miss. will be co-sponsoring the Second Annual National Conference on Civil Rights next week (June 17-19th, 2012). The timing is perfect.