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Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner

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In 1964 the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) organised its Freedom Summer campaign. Its main objective was to try an end the political disenfranchisement of African Americans in the Deep South. Volunteers from the three organizations decided to concentrate its efforts in Mississippi. In 1962 only 6.7 per cent of African Americans in the state were registered to vote, the lowest percentage in the country.

CORE, SNCC and NAACP also established 30 Freedom Schools in towns throughout Mississippi. Volunteers taught in the schools and the curriculum now included black history, the philosophy of the civil rights movement. During the summer of 1964 over 3,000 students attended these schools and the experiment provided a model for future educational programs such as Head Start.

Freedom Schools were often targets of white mobs. So also were the homes of local African Americans involved in the campaign. That summer 30 black homes and 37 black churches were firebombed.

On 21st June, 1964 James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, went to Longdale to visit Mt. Zion Methodist Church, a building that had been fire-bombed by the Ku Klux Klan because it was going to be used as a Freedom School.

On the way back to the CORE office in Meridian, the three men were arrested by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price. Later that evening they were released from the Neshoba jail only to be stopped again on a rural road where a white mob shot them dead and buried them in a earthen dam.

When Attorney General Robert Kennedy heard that the men were missing, he arranged for Joseph Sullivan of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to go to Mississippi to discover what has happened. On 4th August, 1964, FBI agents found the bodies in an earthen dam at Old Jolly Farm.

On 13th October, Ku Klux Klan member, James Jordon, confessed to FBI agents that he witnessed the murders and agreed to co-operate with the investigation. Aware that it would be impossible to persuade a white Mississippi jury to convict the murderers, the government decided to arrange for nineteen of the men to be charged under an 1870 federal law of conspiring to deprive Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney of their civil rights. This included Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price.

On 24th February, 1967, Judge William Cox dismissed seventeen of the nineteen indictments. However, the Supreme Court overruled him and the Mississippi Burning Trial started on 11th October, 1967. The main evidence against the defendants came from James Jordon, who had taken part in the killings. Another man, Horace Barnette had also confessed to the crime but refused to give evidence at the trial.

Jordan claimed that Price had released Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney at 10.25. but re-arrested them before they were able to cross the border into Lauderdale County. Price then took them to to the deserted Rock Cut Road where he handed them over to the Ku Klux Klan.

On 21st October, 1967, seven of the men were found guilty of conspiring to deprive Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney of their civil rights and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to ten years. This included James Jordon (4 years) and Cecil Price (6 years) but Sheriff Lawrence Rainey was acquitted.

Civil Rights activists led by Ruth Schwerner-Berner, the former wife of Michael Schwerner and Ben Chaney, the brother of James Chaney, continued to campaign for the men to be charged with murder.

Yesterday, the forty-first anniversary of the crime, Edgar Ray Killen, a Ku Klux Klan member and part-time preacher, was found guilty of the manslaughter of the three men.

I have followed this case since it happened. I have used the story in my teaching for over 20 years. I believe those Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer activists provide excellent role models for our students. If you want to use my materials you can find them here:





There are several sources available on the web pages (including different responses to yesterday’s verdict). However, here is just one that is worth quoting:

Rita Schwerner, application letter to join CORE's Freedom Summer project in 1964.

Since I have become active in CORE here in New York, I have become increasingly aware of the problems which exist in the Southern states. I have a strong desire to contribute in some small way, by the utilization of those skills which I possess, to the redress of the many grievances occurring daily. I wish to become an active participant rather than a passive onlooker.

As a teacher I have been working in South Jamaica, Queens where I not only have had experience in dealing with teenagers, but have become increasingly concerned with the conditions under which these children must live.

As my husband and I are in close agreement as to our philosophy and involvement in the civil rights struggle, I wish to work near him, under the direction of CORE, in whatever capacity I may be most useful. My hope is to someday pass on to the children we may have a world containing more respect for the dignity and worth of all men that that would which was willed to us.

Here are two photographs of Rita Schwerner. The first one was taken when she first heard about her husband’s death. The second one shows her celebrating the verdict with Ben Chaney, the brother of James Chaney.

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It was a great, if belated, victory for justice.

Ironic that the verdict came on the 41st anniversary of the murders!

I would love to see this guy die a slow death in the non-reliable Florida electric chair to pay for the three young lives he took as a result of his hatred. To me that would be justice.

We have discussed before the often noble and generous spirit of true liberals. Somehow I suspect that these men, who sacrificed their lives for justice for others, would urge us to forgiveness and compassion.

We in America need to remember that while progress in great progress in civil rights has been made in the last sixty years, much needs yet to be done.

I am thankful for the verict and thanks John for posting the information.

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I think it took amazing courage to do what those three men did. It took a mass movement for justice to get change in America but it also took the bravery of individuals.

It always leaves me wondering if I would have that courage.

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I think it took amazing courage to do what those three men did. It took a mass movement for justice to get change in America but it also took the bravery of individuals.

When Edgar Ray Killen was interviewed in 1999 about the case he justified the killings by describing the civil rights activists as “communists”. This was a common term used by Ku Klux Klan members. After all, they were guilty of lynching trade union leaders as well as civil rights workers.

In many ways James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were communists. They believed in equality. They thought that all men and women should be treated the same. I don’t have much time for the American Communist Party (far too willing to support what was going on in the Soviet Union for my liking), however, they were consistent in their support for civil rights in the Deep South. Several of their members, including Viola Liuzzo, were murdered as a result of their efforts.


By the way, how do you explain the fact that such a high proportion of those racists in the Deep South were devout Christians? I suppose they must have been Bush-style Christians. You know, the ones who do not seem to have read the New Testament.

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The KKK has a website, and on it they are still trying to paint Martin Luther King as a communist, something Hoover never achieved.

They have an obviously photoshopped picture of MLK with a banner in the background saying 'communist convention' or something like that.

It seems that their intellect is no bigger than their tolerance.

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The great scandal is that the FBI knew who carried out the murder of these three civil rights workers within hours of it taking place. One of the men who took part in the murder was a FBI informant. However, they refused to take action (Hoover hated civil rights workers and wanted the event to scare off other young people from travelling to the Deep South).

The problem for LBJ was that two of those murdered were white. LBJ feared that it might lose him votes in the North in the 1964 presidential election. He therefore put pressure on Hoover to solve the case. Therefore, according to the autobiography of William Sullivan, Deputy Director of the FBI, it was decided to use its informant to help find the bodies: “We gave him about thirty thousand dollars to tell us who did the job and where the bodies were buried… He had been one of a group of nineteen Klansmen who took the young men out of their car when they left jail and shot them dead in the brush.”

The FBI did not use its informant to get the men convicted for murder by local courts. As Sullivan explains: “The men were charged with conspiracy to deprive Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney of their civil rights not murder since murder is not a federal crime - and none of those involved received more than a ten-year sentence. But they were apprehended and President Johnson was off the hook.”

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  • 2 years later...

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