June 21, 1964 – The Ku Klux Klan Murder Civil Rights Workers in Mississippi

On this day in history, a most heinous crime was carried out in Mississippi.

In 1964, Andrew Goodman, 20, Michael Schwerner, 24 and James Chaney, 21, were taking part in “Freedom Summer,” a volunteer program bringing young people from around the country to come to the South and help register black voters. Chaney, a Black Mississippian, and Goodman and Schwerner, Jewish New Yorkers, were based in Meridian, Mississippi, but on June 21st they drove to Neshoba County to look into the burning of a Black church that had been a meeting place for civil rights groups.

Aware that their station wagon’s license number had been given to members of the white supremacist Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan, before leaving Meridian they informed other workers of their plans and set check-in times in accordance with standard security procedures. But they were never heard from again.

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Late that afternoon, Neshoba County deputy Cecil Price — a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — stopped their car and arrested Chaney for speeding. He booked all three into the jail. During the hours they were held incommunicado in jail, Price notified his Klan associates (according to later testimony) who assembled and planned how to kill the three civil rights workers.

After the three were fined and released, Price followed them to the edge of town, where he pulled them over with his police siren. He held them until the Klan murder squad arrived. They were taken to an isolated spot where James Chaney was severely beaten and possibly mutilated, and all three were shot to death. Schwerner and Goodman were each shot once in the heart; Chaney, the lone African-American, was shot three times. Their car was driven into a swamp and set on fire, and their bodies buried in an earthen dam with a bulldozer.

After a 44-day search, FBI agents dug the bodies from under 15 feet of dirt. The state never charged anyone with murder, and federal statutes against murder did not exist at the time.

Instead, the federal government tried 18 men on charges of conspiring to violate the civil rights of the victims. Seven were convicted and served prison sentences of less than six years. Eight were acquitted. A local preacher who had been strongly implicated in the murders, ironically named Edgar Ray Killen, went free. [In 2005, the trial was reopened and Killen was finally convicted (but only of manslaughter) at the age of 80.]

The case was dramatized in the movie ”Mississippi Burning.”

The outrage over what happened to the three young men sharply increased public support for the Civil Rights Movement, paving the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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