Tuesday, February 26, 2008
The True Story of the Mississippi Murders
By SARAH KESSLER
(Sarah Kessler is a student in Mr. Randy Turner's eighth grade communication arts class at South Middle School during the 2007-2008 school year.)
It was a hot, summer’s night, and in the darkness, you could hear voices chanting, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if you’d stayed where you belonged, you wouldn’t be here with us.”
Terrified, three men stood, listening to the chant, waiting to die. As the Ku Klux Klan finished their chant, they raised their guns and fired. The men dropped to the ground, dead.
As terrible as this sounds, a scene similar to this actually did take place on June 21, 1964. (Huie 134-139)
The Murder Story
It was 1964 and three college students, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, had arrived in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to participate in Freedom Summer. This event was a program in the Southern states to register blacks to vote. Many of the volunteers in this campaign were college students from the North. Among these volunteers were Schwerner and Goodman. Their companion, Chaney, was a local Mississippian who joined them in their civil rights work.
As the trio was heading to Meridian, Mississippi, in their car to investigate a church bombing, they were arrested by Cecil Price, a police officer and suspected member of the KKK. The reason given for their jailing was that they were driving over the speed limit. (Ball 37.)
While the civil rights workers were being held in prison, Michael (known as Mickey to his friends,) requested a phone call. Their guard refused to let him make his call. Price then informed his fellow Klansman, Edgar Killen that he had captured and imprisoned the men.
Around ten o’clock, Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were released from the jail, only to be ambushed by other KKK members. After a high-speed car chase, the young men were captured by Ku Klux Klan members.
Nobody but certain members of the KKK know exactly what happened that night in Mississippi, but we do know that the three victims were shot to death. Chaney was also beaten, most likely because of his race. Forty four days after the murders, the bodies of these courageous men were found, buried by a nearby farm in an earthen dam. The burnt remnants of the trio’s car were also found.
Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner are remembered in history for their bravery and their dedicated work in the civil rights movement. They may be gone, but their names and their work remain. This is the story of the Mississippi Murders.
At the time of the murder, no one was tried for murder. Now, 41 years after the fateful night when Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were brutally murdered, Edgar Ray Killen finally was before a jury, charged with manslaughter.
Killen, known as “Preacher” in the community where he lived, was taken to court when he was 80 years old. He was confined to a wheelchair, due to a recent logging accident when he was employed as a sawmill operator. (www.courttv.com/trials/killen/background_ctv.html)
Killen was accused of being the leader of a group of white supremacists who captured and killed three civil rights workers in the summer of 1964. (www.courttv.com/trials/killen/062105_verdict_ctv.html)
In 2005, Killen was placed in front of Judge Marcus Gordon in court. This judge said that he had “taken into consideration that there are three lives in this case and that the three lives should be absolutely respected.” Killen was sentenced to three 20-year terms in prison, one for each murder victim.
Even though this man was tried 41 years late for the murders he committed, it’s better late than never. Justice finally was served in Mississippi. (www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/price&bowers/Killen.htm)
About the Victims
James Chaney was born in Meridian, Mississippi, on May 30, 1943. His mother’s name was Fannie Lee Chaney, and his father’s, Ben Chaney. He was the oldest in a family of 5 children. His father left him, his siblings, and his mother when Chaney was in his teen years. In 1953, James was suspended from the colored school when he refused to take of the NAACP button he was wearing. He was expelled about a year later for fighting in school.
Chaney’s asthma prevented him from joining the army, but he led on to work with his father as a plasterer. When James was 20 years old, he and his father had a fight which resulted in him joining the CORE organization (Congress of Racial Equality).
In 1964, when Chaney was 21 years old, CORE took part of Freedom Summer. He was partnered with Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner to register black Mississippians to vote. The KKK heard of the trio’s mission and murdered them on June 21, 1964. (www.core-online.org/History/chaney.htm)
Michael Schwerner, known as “Mickey” to his friends, was born on November 6, 1939 in New York City. He started college at Michigan State University in hopes of becoming a veterinarian. Schwerner then decided to switch his major to sociology and transferred to Cornell University.
When Michael was 24, he was hired as a field worker in the CORE organization. He and his new wife, Rita, then went to Mississippi as volunteers for Freedom Summer.
Schwerner was soon to be known as “Goatee” to KKK members and he became one of the most hated civil rights workers. Because of the KKK’s hatred of him, Michael and his coworkers, Chaney and Goodman, were all shot to death on June 21, 1964. (www.core-online.org/History/schwerner.htm)
Andrew Goodman was born to Robert and Carolyn Goodman on November 23, 1943. He grew up in New York, New York with two brothers. Goodman transferred to Queens College after spending a year sudying at the University of Wisconsin. His original plans were to earn a degree in drama, but he changed his mind and studied anthropology.
Andrew had been an activist since the early age of 15, and when his application to Freedom Summer was accepted, he immediately headed down to Mississippi.
When Goodman reached Mississippi, he met up with “Mickey” and started their civil rights work to register blacks to vote. They were also accompanied by James Chaney. Sadly, Andrew Goodman only lived to be 20 years old, for he and his comrades were killed by the Ku Klux Klan shortly after they had begun their work in Mississippi.
Ball, Howard. Murder in Mississippi, 2004.
Huie, William. Civil Rights, 2000.