Mississippi Burning, 50th Anniversary of a Crime That Nearly Went Unpunished.

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.


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26 thoughts on “Mississippi Burning, 50th Anniversary of a Crime That Nearly Went Unpunished.”

  1. Paul C. Schulte: You are totally correct about the difference between the Kennedys and LBJ. CNN is running this show on the Sixties. So far we have heard about the Kennedys and its all rah rah Kennedys. Then they went into the Vietnam War and its all no good LBJ. Next is the civil rights movement and maybe LBJ will get some credit. My take on Presidents in the 20th Century is that there are three who exceeded all others: Theodore Roosevelt, Truman and LBJ. But, what do I know. I am just a dog.

  2. on 1, June 23, 2014 at 7:00 amDredd
    Tragic that some parts of America resist development of a better society.
    Worse yet Dredd, they long for the ‘good old days’.

  3. Dr Harris:

    “When will the insanity end? All the biological evidence I have been able to grasp relentlessly informs me that every “modern human” has ancestry going back to Africa, and there are no exceptions.” So true. There was no sunscreen at the inception of humanity. Skin color is a perfect evolutionary balance between UV absorption to produce optimal vitamin D levels, and protection from UV damage.

    In fact, it was recently discovered that crossing with Neanderthals may have allowed us to incorporate the gene for lighter skin sooner. Neanderthals had lived in the North, with weaker sunlight, for longer than Cro Magnon, and in fact had lighter skin. It is theorized that crossing with Neanderthals allowed us to have lighter skin sooner. We needed that lighter skin for the creation of vitamin D, and we did not need as much protection against sunburn.

    It has been proven through mitochondrial analysis that all humanity descended from a single female ancestor. We are all related. We are all people. To me, skin tone variation is simply biological sunscreen, and a source of wondrous, beautiful variety among people. I’ve explained to my little boy that people are like horses – some are big and some are small, and we come in all shades of brown, from cream to ebony. It has not occurred to him that one person’s color may be better or worse than any other.

  4. Getting white middle class kids involved in the movement was deliberate. Not enough people cared about what was happening to Black kids and adults. The political pressure necessary to effect change required the support of the white middle class. That tactic was successful.

  5. Chuck:

    “I told Marcus that I replied to her, “The trial would have lasted no more than a week or ten days, there would have been a verdict of guilty or not guilty, and all the lawyers would have been in jail.””

    I love it. Cut out all the drama and pandering to the cameras and just get down to the law.

  6. so when we hear the term “Reparations” we are not just talking about slavery!

  7. Even Hitler loved his dog. It is genetically driven and learned. There are those who grew up in hate and would have no part of it. There are those who grow up completely detached from it and still hate. There just seems to be a lot of those who are predisposed to it living in the South. Perhaps it is an easy way to make oneself feel superior without doing anything. After all being merely one of several billion makes one feel insignificant from time to time.

  8. Oops? Schwerner and Goodman were Jewish, and therefore, were not quite white? Surely, all Jews are colored people?

    When will the insanity end? All the biological evidence I have been able to grasp relentlessly informs me that every “modern human” has ancestry going back to Africa, and there are no exceptions. The study of mitochondrial DNA diversity is, for me, very strong, plausibly scientifically irrefutable, evidence that there are no “Americans” who are not, in simple truth, “African Americans,” and this is true independent of social and cultural traditions which claim otherwise.

    As for myself, I have very close relatives who are second and third generation from having been born in slavery in the southern United States of America.

    Relatives, and friends of relatives, who can readily pass as black have quite often, on seeing a photograph of my dad’s mother, identified her (correctly, I believe) as “a black woman.” She died when my dad was about two years old, and she was, so I gather, born in Canada, where her light skin allowed her to pass for “white,” perhaps in the manner of the long time head of the NAACP, Walter White.

    For myself, I self-identify as a colored person, and I identify every other human person I have ever met or heard of also as a colored person. For me, there has been only one human race since the Neanderthals seemingly vanished, and that one and only race is variegated-colored.

    I find that I have three biological qualities that qualify me for being the object of severe-to-devastating-to-sometimes-lethal prejudices. The first is my identifying with African-Americans as being my closest real kin as an aspect of the characteristics of my biological conception.. The second is my being so profoundly autistic as to have effectively been conceived in unrelenting contempt of adversarial law and jurisprudence. The third is my having been biologically conceived as a person who is profoundly and irreversibly transgendered.

    Any one of those aspects of what I understand to be the biological diversity which culminated in my conception as a one cell in the form of a zygote would, methinks, have qualified me for more hateful sociocultural prejudice than any person can ordinarily survive. However, I have long noted that life has aspects that are as though of profoundly creatively evolving utter chaos, and I attribute my having been able to stay alive for more than 75 years to the forms of love that only pure chaos can truly sustain.

    My life, in that sense, is, to me, as though a catastrophically terrible, utterly horrid, human social accident, that had to wait for my biological conception to start on a pathway toward possible fruition.

    My personal gratitude, for that catastrophically terrible, utterly horrid, human social accident is, for me vastly beyond immense.

    Quantum mechanical biology is not everyone’s forte fortissimo. Yet I cannot prove, to myself or to anyone else, that it is not my life’s greatest forte forte fortissimo. Nor can I prove to anyone that it is, for the future has yet to happen.

    What I do understand is that what I do not understand seems to transcend the infinitely infinite. That is not the measure of my ignorance, for my ignorance more than infinitely transcends that.

    However, there is, for me, a useful gift in knowing, in recognizing, and in understanding the immense infinitudes of my ignorance, that gift is simply that I can never run out of things to learn.

    In 1961, as part of my transitioning from being a liberal arts physics major to becoming a bioengineer, I moved to the East Garfield Park neighborhood,in Chicago, Illinois. My brother, three years older than me, was in his ChicagoTheological Seminary intern year at Warren Avenue Congregational Church, and was able to arrange fo me to stay in the former coal bin in the basement of the church parsonage, while, as an effectively homeless and jobless person, I set out to become neither homeless nor jobless.

    Back then, there were many reasonably decent jobs in the Chicago inner city, though not nearly enough to go around enough to include everyone who sought decent employment.

    One day, partly on a whim, I walked to the corporate headquarters of Allied Radio Corporation, at 100 N. Western Avenue, and found the personnel department, where i learned that Allied had use for people who could repair electronic things. I was able to truthfully convince the personnel department and the supervisor of the commercial service department that I could properly repair electronic things, and got a job as a repairman at Allied.

    Allied Radio was expanding in those days, and the commercial service department grew too large for the available space at 100 N. Western Avenue, and was moved to the location of Allied’s outlet store, at 1201 W. Washington Blvd., where there was ample space available.

    I had noticed that all the repairmen (there were no “repairwomen”) seemed to me to be at least as pale as I was, and that seemed to me to be dreadfully wrong.

    However, one day, a few months after the move to 1201 W. Washington Blvd, someone showed up as a repairman who was not all that pale. The supervisor introduced this repairman to everyone, and there was a buzz in the deparment among some, but not all, of the repairmen, about what some seemed to think was something wrong happening.

    Well, there was a cafeteria for Allied Radio employees in the 1201 W.Washington Blvd. building, and there were scheduled morning and afternoon work breaks. Came the morning break, I arranged to be a few places behind the new repairman in the cafeteria line.

    After I got, and paid for, my morning break snack, I noticed that the new repairman was sitting at a table by himself. As the commercial service department was one of the smaller departments at 1201 W.Washington Blvd, there were always empty tables at our breaks.

    A sense of furious rage welled up silently and invisibly within me, I walked over to the table where the new repairman was sitting alone, and said to him, “My name is Brian. Mind if I sit here?” He said,”No” and I sat down opposite to him at the table so we could talk easily.

    When the afternoon break came, there were three of us, the new repaiiman, one other repairman, and me, sitting at the same table.

    Yes, I started a sit-in, deliberately. I despise prejudice; yet I affirm prejudiced people, for I can never fault anyone or anything for situational factors that are, or were, outside their actual locus of control.

    The new repairman was an amateur radio operator, I had an amateur radio license before I set off for college, but had not renewed it yet, though I was then mostly repairing amateur radio equipment at Allied.

    Of course, the new repairman talked with other amateur radio operator via amateur radio. He told his ham radio friends that Allied had begun hiring black repairmen who had amateur radio licenses. As more blacks were hired in the commercial service department at Allied, I found myself less and less alone at Allied.

    Being alone in a collection of people is painful.

    David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd. I think I may know something about that.

    When I learned, in grade school, that I could repair “broken” radios, one night, in a dream, it came to me to ponder what else might be “broken” that could usefully be repaired. That dream changed the direction of my life.

    In that dream, I came to a preliminary understanding of the broken aspects of people, the broken aspects of human society, and of the possibility that, through the diverse gifts of my life (such as being autistic, being transgendered, and being colored), were I to dedicate my life to understanding human brokenness and healing human brokenness, I might have a chance, however slight, of doing something of some use to someone else.

    Have I ever done anything useful to someone else? I have no way to accurately measure that. Will I ever do anything useful to someone else? I also have no way to measure that.

    There is one thing that I find I seem able to measure, however.

    I seem to be able to measure how many avoidable mistakes, accidents, atrocities, or other events of any and all kinds can ever actually happen.

    The measurement I have been able to make has a numerical result, which I can here state.

    Please note that three periods together (…) is a symbol for (infinitely repeating decimal):

    It is identically “0.000…”

    Unless my measurement contains error, the biological truth value of the Anglo-American Adversarial System of Law and Jurisprudence, necessarily also has a scientific truth value of “0.000…”

    I find that the Bayesian probability that the Anglo-American Adversarial System of Law and Jurisprudence is other than a self-referential, circular-logic-based, false-premise-grounded, insanely-and-psychotically-addictive, eternally-unconstitutional, religious establishment, is identically “0.000…”

    I strive to bring practicable, rigorously truthfully honest, healing of the traumas of humanity’s past errors, for those errors neither could, nor should, have been avoided; for it is always impossible to avoid any event which actually happens.

    My encounters with sacrifice have only strengthened my striving to bring into the notions of human and human civil rights, through rigorously, scientifically-falsifiable-if-actually-false, genuinely authentic mercy and kindness.

    I find I am one, and only one, ordinary human person, and can only do wht an ordinary human person can do.

    Nonetheless, I find that, in every aspect of human society, the unit of action is the individual human person, and whatever a group of people do is the mere superposition of the actions of individual human persons.

    Society, as a mere mental construct, has never, never ever, actually done anything. Appealing to society for human behavior methods is appealing to an empty void.

    Oh, yes. There is another reason for “society” to despise and reject me. I am a “whistle-blower.” I have invested my whole life in learning to understand child abuse caused by social norms which cause child abuse, especially abuse in any and every variation of the atrociously deceptive dishonesty that may take the form of telling a child to believe the falsehood, “You knew better, because you were told.”

    Convincing a child to believe that the child actually did something the child could actually have avoided doing, or convincing a child to believe that the child could actually have avoided doing something the child actually did, are the most profoundly neurologically-damaging forms of child-abuse that I have ever found.

    As a civil rights activist and as a human rights activist,herewith, as a whistle-blower, i continue my lifelong efforts to bring about an end to child abuse.

    All the conundra that I have observed on the Turley blog, I can trace to one or another variant of child abuse, and to the neurological trauma that both causes and results in child abuse, and have done so since the dawn of human events and, perhaps, also, long before then.

    1. J Brian – I think the contention is that the boys were not WASPs. During the period leading up to the Civil Rights movement in the South a significant number of Italians, Irish, etc. found themselves tarred-and-feathered or lynched. They were considered lesser humans and at physical risk from the locals.

  9. Paul,
    It was Schwerner’s widow who said something to that effect. Hoover’s racism was well known, but from what I know, Bobby Kennedy and LBJ were both on the same page with regard to involving the FBI. The publicity firestorm caused by the murder of two white guys from New York added fuel to a fire that might have flickered out, but certainly gave the White House and DoJ the cover they needed to order Hoover to do what he didn’t want to do. On the other hand, to their credit, once the FBI did get involved, they pulled out all the stops.

    BTW, the movie has several historical inaccuracies, but that’s Hollywood for you.

    I know a lot about this story that I did not include. In fact, after I wrote it, I spent more time deleting material than it took me to write the thing in the first place. Some of what I wrote before paring it back was decidedly uncivil.

    If you have not done so, I suggest you read Jerry Mitchell’s bio. Hell of an investigative reporter, and he is still hard at it.

    Judge Marcus Gordon is still on the bench. I had to be down there for a murder trial in Neshoba County shortly after the O.J.Simpson trial ended. When I got to the courthouse, Judge Gordon grabbed me and gave me a hug, asking how I had been. I told him that if his ears had been burning, it was because my wife and I had been talking about him. He raised an eyebrow, allowing he hoped it was good. Told him, “Yep, she asked me how the Simpson trial would have gone if Marcus Gordon had been in charge instead of Judge Ito.”

    I told Marcus that I replied to her, “The trial would have lasted no more than a week or ten days, there would have been a verdict of guilty or not guilty, and all the lawyers would have been in jail.”

    He thew back his head and laughed, his whole 6’4″ frame shaking. Said that was the damn truth.

    1. LBJ and Bobby Kennedy had the same problem with Hoover, he had the pictures. The Kennedys were dragged kicking and screaming into taking an active part in the Civil Rights Movement. LBJ was much bolder.

  10. Charlton – CBS is reporting that LBJ ‘ordered’ Hoover to assist in the investigation. And nothing would have happened if two white boys had not disappeared.

  11. Haunting song and moving delivery. I’d read the lyrics but never heard it sung by Billie Holiday before. Thanks for the link.

  12. I remember when Killen was finally convicted. I’m sure there were others who got away, and those who knew about it but did not come forward.

    Heartbreaking bloody history.

    My family has a newspaper clipping of an essay about my grandfather. He faced off against a KKK mob, alone, in the street with his shotgun. Sounded like something out of a movie. But he was a tough man. One of my favorite stories about him. Wish I could have met him, but he died before I was born.

  13. I still remember seeing the news stories about this incident and the movie just brought the violence of the KKK into our living rooms.

  14. Good article. I worked in a southern place for a civil rights program for two years and had to deal with the Klan and a White Citizens Council. I was a chump and could have been killed. It is hard to explain how these folks think. Perhaps it is not thinking. It is living in a Nazi state of mind. Sundown towns are not just in the South. N guy do not let the sun go down on you in this town. Google search the phrase: Sundown Towns.

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