On June 21, 1964—48 years ago today and only one day after they began a new civil rights campaign—three young civil rights organizers disappeared in Mississippi.
The three men—James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman—were part of the first wave of Mississippi Freedom Summer workers. At the time, intimidation of blacks was commonplace, and new voting laws had made registration increasingly difficult for African Americans. The young men and women set out in a hostile (and often violent) atmosphere to register thousands of African Americans to vote for the first time.
The activists—two of whom were white and one of whom was African American—were held in jail on a speeding charge while they were on their way to investigate a church burning. They were released from jail at night, and headed toward Meridian. The men, who had previously been quite careful to report their whereabouts, never arrived at their destination.
The FBI, on instruction from the Justice Department, began an exhaustive search for the missing civil rights workers—a search which ended six weeks later when the three bodies were recovered near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
The Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Cecil Price et. al. that the federal government had the power to police civil rights violations, and the FBI compiled enough evidence to convict seven individuals of violating the men’s civil rights. However, no one was convicted of murder; the 1967 federal trial of prime suspect Edgar Ray Killen ended in a hung jury.
In 2005—forty-one years after the workers’ deaths—Edgar Ray Killen (by then 80 years old) was convicted of recruiting the killers and was sentenced to 60 years in jail for manslaughter.
The horrifying disappearance and deaths of the three young workers shocked the nation and galvanized the civil rights movement. Hundreds of other Freedom Summer workers braved the journey, and successfully registered thousands of African Americans to vote.
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The movie Mississippi Burning recalls the investigation. (Note that the investigation was code-named Miburn, short for “Mississippi burning.”)
If you have access through your library, a good biography of James Earl Chaney is in African American National Biography, available online through the Oxford African American Studies Center.
For more information, check out Howard Ball’s Murder in Mississippi (University Press of Kansas, 2004) and Bill Scheppler’s The Mississippi Burning Trial: A Primary Source Account (Rosen Publishing Group, 2003).
To learn more about the activists’ work that summer, check out one young volunteer’s account of her experience, provided by PBS. The Wikipedia summary of Freedom Summer is available here.
There are also dozens of books available which provide insight into the struggles African Americans faced in Mississippi during this period. UNC Press offerings include Françoise Hamlin’s Crossroads at Clarksdale and Emilye Crosby’s A Little Taste of Freedom.