Jun-21: A Day of Bigotry and Justice

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In 1964, a coalition of civil rights group organized “Freedom Summer” to register African-American voters in Mississippi as only 5.3 percent were registered as of 1962.  On this day in 1964, three Freedom Summer volunteers, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner from New York City, and James Chaney from Meridian, Mississippi, were arrested for speeding in Philadelphia, Mississippi and held at the local jail.

The Crime

After several hours, they were released and were followed by law enforcement and others as they left town.  Before leaving Neshoba County their car was pulled over again and three were abducted, shot at close range and their bodies buried at a nearby dam.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered 150 FBI agents be redirected to Mississippi to investigate their disappearance which had gained national attention.  Their bodies were found 44-days later.

Justice

The State of Mississippi refused to prosecute any of those involved.  As a result, the Justice Department charged 18 individuals including Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey, Deputy Cecil Price, the KKK Imperial Wizard Samuel Bowers and local preacher and Klansman Edgar Ray Killen with conspiring to deprive the activists of their civil rights. In 1967, Price and Bowers were among the seven convicted.  It was the first ever conviction of killing civil rights workers in Mississippi.

Sheriff Rainey was acquitted as was Killen but only because one juror refused to convict a preacher.

Inspired by the 1989 film Mississippi Burning (see below), Jackson Clarion Ledger investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell began investigating civil rights era crimes.  His work not only led to convictions in the 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, the fatal firebombing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer in 1966, and the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls but also found new evidence on Edgar Ray Killen.  As a result, in 2005 a Neshoba County grand jury indicted Killen on three counts of murder as the mastermind of the crime.

On June 21, 2005 – exactly 41 years after the crime – a jury convicted Killen on three counts of manslaughter. The 80-year old Killen was sentenced to three consecutive terms of 20 years in prison.

The Legacy

In August 1980, Republican Presidential nominee Ronald Reagan gave a speech evoking “state’s rights” to the Neshoba County Fair.

In 1988, the movie “Mississippi Burning” was released starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as two FBI agents assigned to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers in a fictionalized version.  The film received seven Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture and won for Best Cinematography.

In 1989, on the 25th anniversary of the murders, the U.S. Congress passed a non-binding resolution honoring the three men; Senator Trent Lott and the rest of the Mississippi delegation refused to vote for it.

In 2009, Jerry Mitchell would receive a MacArthur Fellow (aka “Genius Grant”) for his investigative work.

In 2014, President Obama awarded Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were civil rights activists and participants in “Freedom Summer,” an historic voter registration drive in 1964.  As African Americans were systematically being blocked from voter rolls, Mr. Chaney, Mr. Goodman, and Mr. Schwerner joined hundreds of others working to register black voters in Mississippi.  They were murdered at the outset of Freedom Summer. Their deaths shocked the nation and their efforts helped to inspire many of the landmark civil rights advancements that followed.

 

 

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