Friday, March 30, 2012

Murder of three civil rights workers key event in nation's history

(Jamie Sullivan is an eighth grader in Mr. Randy Turner's communication arts at Joplin East Middle School.)     

  Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney were the three civil rights workers murdered during Freedom Summer on June 21st 1964 in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Goodman and Schwerner were both Jewish and from New York and Chaney was a black Mississippian from Meridian. Neshoba County deputy sheriff and member of the White Nights of the Ku Klux Klan Cecil Price and had arrested all three of them and later released them. After being released they were all shot in the chest and additionally Chaney was beaten with a chain. Their bodies were found several weeks later buried in an earthen dam. Forty years later, Edgar Ray Killen, at 80 years old, was charged with three counts of murder. But there’s more to the story than just this…
         The summer of 1964 was known as Freedom Summer which was a campaign in the U.S. to get blacks registered to vote, which in Mississippi was illegal at the time. Over 1,000 out-of-state volunteers participated in Freedom Summer alongside thousands of black Mississippians. Most of the volunteers were from the North and 90% were white and many were Jewish. (McAdam 66) Over the 10 weeks that it was going on, four people were severely wounded, thirty-seven businesses were bombed or burned and not to mention the murder of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. (Carson 114)
         All three men had just finished a week-long training on the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. Local Klansmen knew about some of the activities going on between the three civil rights workers. Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the KK, had issued an order to kill Michael Schwerner. Schwerner was in Philadelphia, Mississippi in Neshoba County, a dangerous place for civil rights workers to be at, with Goodman and Chaney inspecting the ruins of Mount Zion United Methodist Church, which had been burned 5 days earlier because it had been a meeting place for many other civil rights groups. ( According to Wallace Miller, a member of the KKK who had broken his vow of silence 2 weeks after Freedom Summer, the Mt. Zion church had been burned to lure Schwerner into Neshoba County so the Klan could kill him. The three men were aware that their station wagon’s number had been given to members of the White Citizens’ Council and the KKK so before leaving Meridian they told other Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) workers about their plans and set check-in times as apart of standard security procedures. (
         Later that afternoon, Cecil Price had arrested Chaney because he had allegedly been driving 35 miles over the speed limit. Price also arrested Goodman and Schwerner for “investigation”. He brought them to the county jail and they were not allowed any phone calls. While in jail, Price notified Edgar Ray Killen who got some of the Klan together and planned to kill the three workers. Killen was later identified as the ringleader of the Klansmen. The Klan planned an  ambush and after setting it up, Chaney was fined $20 and the three men were told to leave the county. Price followed them to the edge of town and then pulled them over. He kept them with him until the Klan had arrived. Once they arrived Schwerner was dragged out of the car and shot once through the heart. Goodman was shot next and then Chaney was shot three times and beaten with a chain. The Klan then drove the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) car into a swamp and set it on fire. They buried the three men’s bodies in an earthen dam and then they used a bulldozer to cover them up. (
         The bodies of the three men were found in August 1964. (Ball 111) There were 21 men accused of their murders some of them including Edgar Ray Killen and Cecil Ray Price. (The Telegraph Herald Dec. 4 1964) Immediately after the men turned up missing, SNCC and COFO workers had been calling the FBI and asking for an investigation but the FBI agents wouldn’t investigate because it was a local matter. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered an investigation and FBI agents began swarming around Philadelphia, Mississippi where Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were arrested. (
         During the hung jury of Edgar Ray Killen’s first trial, one woman of the jury couldn’t bring herself to convict him because she believed a man of God could not have been apart of the conspiracy. Later she regretted her decision and admitted she was wrong.
         On January 6, 2005, Killen was arrested for three counts of murder. His trial was rescheduled for April 18, 2005, and began on June 13, 2005 while he was in a wheelchair because he broke both of his legs while chopping lumber at his rural home in Neshoba County. Killen was found guilty of manslaughter on June 21, 2005: the 41st anniversary of the crime. The jury dropped charges of murder but still found him guilty of recruiting the mob that killed the three men. His maximum sentence of 60 years in prison was sentenced on June 23, 2005. He was sentenced 20 years for each count of manslaughter and was eligible for parole after serving for at least 20 years. (
         On August 12, Killen was released from prison with a $600,000 appeal bond. He claimed that he was not able to use his right hand and that he now had to permanently use a wheelchair to get around. But on September 3, a police officer had reported seeing Killen walking around “with no problem”. At a hearing on September 9, more officers had also reported seeing Killen driving and one officer said that he shook hands with Killen using his right hand. A judge had ordered him back to prison saying that he believed that he had committed a fraud against the court. ( On March 9, 2006, Killen was removed from prison to a hospital in Jackson, Mississippi to treat his injured leg from a logging accident in 2005. He is still in jail serving his 60 years for the murders of the three civil rights workers; one of the most important events in the civil rights movement.
Book sources
Ball, Howard. Murder in Mississippi. Lawrence KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004
Ball, Howard. Justice in Mississippi. Lawrence KS 66045: University Press of Kansas, 2006
Huie, William. Three Lives for Mississippi. University Press of Mississippi/Jackson: WWC Books, 1965
McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1988
Carson, Claybourne. In Struggle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981

1 comment:

Unknown said...

If you haven't seen, the 2010 documentary, "Neshoba: The Price of Freedom," I hope you will see it. The film has the most updated material about the case including the 2005 trial of Edgar Ray Killen. I hope this film will be available in middle schools, high schools and colleges throughout the country.