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Freedom Summer

Jonathan Steele

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The voice on the line was polite but insistent. The FBI was conducting a nationwide manhunt for three men who had disappeared in Mississippi. My car had been found abandoned in suspicious circumstances in nearby Louisiana. Would I come immediately to explain why, and whether I knew anything about the men?

The phone call was unnerving even though I had nothing to hide, and I hastened to obey the summons. Of course I knew that the men had gone missing: the case was rocking America that summer, exactly 40 years ago. America's turbulent civil rights decade was at its height and the missing men were three volunteer activists who had been helping black people stand up for their rights and register to vote in the Deep South's most violent state. They had been arrested by the deputy sheriff of Neshoba county on June 21, held for a few hours, and released after dark. Two days later their burned-out station wagon was discovered on a lonely road, but the men were nowhere to be found.

James Chaney, 21, was a black Mississippian from Meridian, a city in the eastern part of the state. Micky Schwerner, 24, was a Jewish activist from New York City who had spent four months in Meridian, running various civil rights projects. Andrew Goodman, 20, came from an upper-middle-class New York family, and had arrived in Mississippi only the day before he went missing. Their terrible story was later turned into a film, Mississippi Burning.

The three activists had disappeared a few hours after a cavalcade of 200 young people arrived in Mississippi for what was called the Freedom Summer. The term "human shields" was not yet in vogue but that is what we were. The idea was that as outsiders we might shame Mississippi's police and sheriffs into reducing their brutality. With the exception of a handful of foreigners such as myself, the roughly 800 volunteers were American - mostly students from prestigious Ivy League universities and other private colleges. We had to bring $500 for use as bail money in the very probable case of being arrested on trumped-up or minor charges.

There were a few middle-class blacks but the majority were affluent whites, and firm believers in the American dream. In the deep south they were vilified as "outside agitators", as though they had no business to be there. They discovered another America, a society in which they were indeed foreigners. Here was a state where blacks made up 45% of the population but only 6% had managed to overcome the poll taxes, the unfairly administered literacy tests and violent reprisals, just to get on the register to exercise their American right to vote.

Before we reached Mississippi we had attended a week-long orientation session at a college in Oxford, Ohio. The three men who went missing were on the course, too. Activists from the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee organised role-plays of redneck thugs beating up defenceless blacks to show us how to curl up and - with luck - avoid serious injury. We were advised of our legal rights.

The instructors, dressed in blue denim overalls, included firebrands such as Stokely Carmichael and Marion Barry, who later became "black power" symbols. But there were quieter ones such as James Forman, who warned us that our presence in Mississippi would inevitably provoke violence, and that we should not provoke it further through sassy behaviour: "I may be killed. You may be killed. But Mississippi is not the place to start conducting constitutional law classes for policemen, many of whom don't have a fifth-grade education."

We piled into cars and set off for Mississippi. I was assigned to Vicksburg, a town of around 25,000 people. Our headquarters was a rambling wooden house set high above a pot-holed road in one of the many black parts of town. The plan was to teach literacy and arithmetic in "freedom schools", run health clinics, and accompany local people to the courthouse to get registered. It was rather different from what I had expected of my Harkness postgraduate fellowship to study at Yale.


Edited by Jonathan Steele
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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 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.

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