By Charlton Stanley, Weekend Contributor
Fifty years ago today, the course of American history changed. It was changed by a few carloads of haters, with law enforcement officers complicit. Murder, pure and simple. It was June 16, 1964 that the Mount Zion Methodist Church was burned to the ground by arsonists. The church offended the Ku Klux Klan because it housed a Freedom School. This was a part of the educational program designed to help black Mississippians register to vote. The attack on the church was not a sneak arson in the wee hours. In fact, Klan members assaulted and beat several African Americans present at the church. Then they set the church on fire, burning it to the ground.
Intelligence gathered later by legitimate law enforcement discovered that the Neshoba County church was not chosen by accident. The attack on the church and the people inside was designed to lure more CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality) volunteers to the area. The Klan was interested in one worker in particular, Michael Schwerner. He had attracted interest as a target, aside from being Jewish, because he had helped with a boycott of Mississippi stores, his Freedom Summer activities, and of course helping set up Freedom Schools around the state. The carefully planned trap worked.
At the time of the church burning, Schwerner was in Ohio at a training session sponsored by CORE. James Earl Chaney and Andrew Goodman were also at that training session. Chaney was black and Goodman was also Jewish. The three left Ohio and drove directly to Neshoba County, Mississippi. They got to the church successfully and after looking over the damage, they headed toward Meridian to spend the night. They told their colleagues if they were not at their destination by 4:00 AM, to come looking for them.
They never arrived.
After leaving the burned-out Mount Zion Methodist Church, they were stopped by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price for speeding after one of their tires had a rather suspicious blowout while they were driving. They were held in the Neshoba County Jail until after dark, then released. They were not allowed to use a telephone or make a phone call. After they left the jail, their station wagon was intercepted and stopped on a rural road by KKK members. This whole operation was a coordinated effort between at least some officers of the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office and the Ku Klux Klan.
Their burned out station wagon was found on June 23. There was still no sign of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. Their disappearance attracted national attention. In those days before cell phones and the internet, their pictures appeared on front pages, above the fold, in practically every newspaper in the country. The big three television networks had camera crews and on-camera reporters on the scene. This attention was definitely unwanted by the locals, and some of the reporters and photographers were harassed.
Members of SNCC and COFO asked the FBI for help, but as we later found out, J. Edgar Hoover was deliberately dragging his feet on starting an investigation. Finally, US Attorney General Robert F Kennedy gave Hoover a direct order to start a full-scale FBI investigation. Hoover had no choice. The FBI gave the investigation the code name MIBURN, an acronym for Mississippi Burning.
The investigation later revealed that a group of KKK members, along with Deputy Cecil Price, had stopped church members and beat them with rifle butts. Members of that group were identified as the ones who burned the church.
The investigation continued, with the three missing men unaccounted for. However, because of the intense search, eight other bodies were turned up. All were African American males. Only three have been identified to date, the youngest being 14 years old.
After two months, the FBI received a tip about the location of the bodies. They were in an earthen dam. The badly decomposed bodies were taken for autopsies. Investigators and forensic experts determined that all three had been shot, but before he was killed, Chaney was beaten with a chain.
Suspects were identified but local prosecutors would not pursue the case. That left it to the FBI, who charged 18 suspects under the Force Act of 1870. Of the eighteen, only seven were convicted, one of them Deputy Cecil Price. The jury hung up on three more.
The firestorm of public outrage that erupted over the “Mississippi Burning” murders was the final straw that resulted in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
There are too many stories to tell about those times.
There were other murders, almost too many to comprehend, and we can be certain there were murders we don’t know about to this day. We cannot forget those nameless faceless men who were the subject of the blues ballad, Strange Fruit.
I will have more stories.
An afterword about the Mississippi Burning case:
Jackson Clarion-Ledger investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell would not let the story go. Jerry found additional evidence, and also uncovered the identity of the tipster who helped the FBI in their investigation. Jerry uncovered enough evidence in his investigation that prosecutors decided to reopen the cold case. Edgar Ray Killen, nicknamed “Preacher,” was tried and convicted of three counts of manslaughter. Circuit Court Judge Marcus Gordon presided over the case in 2005.
Judge Gordon is a no-nonsense tough judge, and it came as no surprise to me that he gave Killen the maximum sentence for manslaughter in Mississippi, which is twenty years. It was also no surprise that Judge Gordon ordered the three sentences to run concurrently. With a sixty-year sentence, Edgar Ray Killen will die in prison. He is now 89 years old. His conviction was upheld by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2007.
In 1989 Congress passed a nonbinding resolution honoring James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Every member of the Mississippi Congressional delegation refused to vote for it.