12 June 2012

Activists murdered in Mississippi, 1964.

All over the world in the 1960s, university students were becoming active in important social and political causes. In Cornell University, it has been suggested, students were focusing their considerable energy on the civil rights movement. In fact Cornell students had started travelling to Mississippi in the early 1960s, to organise a voter registration drive for black Americans.

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

However they would not have assumed the worst until Sam Bowers, the Klan's regional Imperial Wizard, ordered the activists to be killed. So the local Klan leader, Baptist Minister Edgar Ray Killen, rounded the three men up as instructed. He was accompanied by two other cars filled with Klan members.

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

In 1967, one man’s testimony helped convict seven of the 19 accused, but even then no-one spent more than six years in prison. In 1967, murder convictions were hard to come by in this part of the world, if the victims were black or Jewish.

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.


diane b said...

What an awful story. I can't help being disgusted at stories from our past history and also today when I hear of the killing going on in the world.

Hels said...


I couldn't agree more.. in fact I have to remind myself that this happened in our lifetime. It was 1964, not the medieval witchcraft trials or the Inquisition.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
It is truly appalling that this evil was committed in the very recent past and in a country which prides itself on human rights and individual freedoms.

And, do we ever really learn from History, we often ask ourselves? Still, it is important to remember and that, at least, is what will happen this year.

the foto fanatic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
the foto fanatic said...

"Mississippi Burning" was shown on one of the Foxtel movie channels today!

Andrew said...

I vaguely recall the Killen sentence in '05. While we Australian's have little to be proud about with our history of our relations with Australia's indigenous or indentured, I don't think we were quite as bad as the US. There was much more good will here, especially in the 20th century. While we might have spent a lot of time, and still do, with ineffectual hand wringing, it was only in early Australia's history that people felt threatened.

I can't understand how with a black president who is not evil, every black person in the States is not on board and ready to vote for his return. Obama will be judged as one of the finer Presidents of the US of A.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

I suppose violent racism can occur anywhere and at any time, but there was something more institutionalised about the Mississippi racism back then than just drunken, unemployed yobs. When I read the records, I am much more offended by the police, sheriffs, solicitors, judges and news paper editors :(

Hels said...

foto fanatic

sometimes I am blown away by my own timing :) This post was written weeks ago, long before Foxtel planned its June viewing.

Surreal, I call it.

Hels said...


I went to a conference over this long weekend where many of the papers focused on current racism (in Australia and elsewhere).

I suppose the rhetoric changes and the tools modernise, and I don't suppose Ku Klux Klansmen will be burning down black churches and Jewish synagogues any time soon.

But there is still a clear message that legal refugee status will be hard to get and illegal boat people will not get asylum.

Deb said...

I don't remember the murders as well as I remember the first trial. The judge was clearly on the side of the Klu Klux Klan.

Anonymous said...

This is the only time I've been to your site. Thank you for explaining more details.
My weblog :: Belleville Washers

Hels said...


I can't find an original court record but it sounded (from other blogs) ugly. In 1965 Judge William Cox threw out the indictments against most Neshoba County conspirators on the ground that all except Rainey and Price were not government officials and therefore could not be charged with acting under colour of law.

The New York Time obit (feb 1988) said: In the course of his judicial career, Judge Cox was attacked by the National Assocation for the Advancement of Coloured People for his remarks about blacks, segregation and civil rights. Criticising the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Judge Cox said in court "I don't know anybody down here who don't (sic) oppose it."

He may not have been supporting the KKK but he surely wasn't friendly to the civil rights movement.

Hels said...

welcome aboard.
Some good reading can be found in "The Lynching of Chaney, Schwerner & Goodman ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans" and "Murder in Mississippi" by Howard Ball

Emm said...

What a great post Hels! I don't know about anyone else but Mississippi Burning came out when I was 15 and it changed my life. One of my later sociology papers discussed religion and right-wing fundamentalism in the KKK, Islamicism and the apartheid government.

Do you know of any good books about this time? Your post has reawakened my interest!

Hels said...


I think "Murder in Mississippi: United States v. Price and the Struggle for Civil Rights" by
Howard Ball is very good, especially if you are after an analysis of the south's Klu Klux Klan, the police, legal systems and judges.

If you are more interested in what motivated the activists in that Freedom Summer, I would select a book like "Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy" by Bruce Watson.

Klansville, USA said...

In the 1960s, in the midst of the growing Civil Rights Movement, Ku Klux Klan activity boomed, reaching an intensity not seen for decades. So why did Hoover and his FBI agents pay much more attention to investigating black militants and communists than pursuing "patriotic" Ku Klux Klan members?

David Cunningham
Klansville, USA: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan

Hels said...


Thank you. It is quite difficult to find since the FBI's own histories gloss over why they didn't arrest the KKK men for murder, physical abuse and terrorism against black citizens. Hoover actually used the vast resources of the FBI AGAINST black groups... since African-Americans who objected to segregation had to have been communist.

So if I understand it correctly, Hoover's blatant hostility to the civil rights movement represented both a fear of communist-inspired equality for blacks _and_ protection for the patriotic, anti-Communist KKK. Despite the KKK's murders and physical abuse etc.