News Update: Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited

Author: Susan Klopfer

Mississippi Klansmen bared their worthless souls to the world when in the summer of 1964 they kidnapped and murdered civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, aged 24, Andrew Goodman, 20, both from New York and James Chaney, 22, from Meridian, Mississipp. Now forty-one years later, at least one alleged Klansman may stand trial for the murders that symbolize Mississippi for much of the nation. The three young men had disappeared at approximately 10:00 p.m., Sunday, June 21, 1964. Both Aaron Henry and Charles Evers, attending the national NAACP convention, went to work immediately trying to learn more once they heard the news. Evers phoned the FBI in Meridian and was given the brush-off. There would be no help from the agency since there was no evidence the three volunteers had been kidnapped across a state line. Only after the FBI was pressured by families and others did agents go to work, soon finding the volunteers’s burned-out 1963 Ford Fairlane station wagon in the Bogue Chitto swamp of Neshoba County about six miles from town in a wooded area near where they were last seen on the night of 21 June. Forty-four days later, FBI agents uncovered the bodies buried fifteen feet in an earthen dam of red clay. All three young men were members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) dedicated to non-violent direct action against racial discrimination. Now it all seems so long ago ... The three young volunteers left the CORE office in Meridian six weeks before to investigate the destruction of a black church in Longdale, Neshoba County that was being used as the site for a "freedom school.” Michael Schwerner had set up the school earlier as part of a wider civil rights campaign in Mississippi teaching black children, among other things, black history and the philosophy of the civil rights movement. But the schoolhouse that had been so perfect for the freedom school, the Mount Zion Church, was burned down on June 16 by members of the KKK searching for Schwerner. They wanted to kill Schwerner and they would not be stopped until the job was done. Chief klansman Sam Bowers had sent word earlier in May to Klan members of Lauderdale and Neshoba counties that it was time to "activate Plan 4" providing for "the elimination" of the despised civil rights activist Michael Schwerner, who the Klan called "Goatee" or "Jew-Boy." Schwerner, the first white civil rights worker based outside of the capitol of Jackson, had drawn the Klan’s hostility after helping to organize a black boycott of a white-owned business and aggressively trying to register blacks in and around Meridian to vote. After the 1963 burning of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, Schwerner and his wife, Rita, joined the frontlines of the Mississippi movement. In January 1964, they went to Mississippi to work for CORE, moving to Meridian where they headed CORE activities in one of the state’s five congressional districts, including organizing a voting rights drive and a freedom school. Known by friends as Mickey, Schwerner and his wife Rita understood their work was dangerous, said Schwerner’s brother Steve, noting that CORE staff members told all new volunteers they couldn’t rely on local law enforcement personnel to protect them. “The volunteers were told that ‘you middle-class kids are used to having the law on your side, but forget it, there’s no law here,’” Steve Schwerner told reporter Diane Chiddister of the Yellow Springs News. Steve Schwerner was two and a half years older than his brother, Michael. Both were the children of parents who worked as union organizers in New York City. The Schwerners taught their children to value all people and to respect all races, Michael Schwerner said, and their father made sure that, in addition to taking his sons to see Yankee games, he took them to watch the Negro Baseball Leagues as well When the modern Civil Rights Movement emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s, both Schwerner brothers participated, although “Mickey always went one step further,” he said. Once, when demonstrators sought to stop construction at a Lower East Side housing project, “Mickey lay down in front of bulldozers to stop them…. He was much more courageous than I was,” Steve Schwerner said. Taped conversations released in 1997 show that on June 23 President Johnson, dealing with the disappearance of the young civil rights workers, was angry over receiving conflicting information on the telephone from Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Senator James Eastland. Kennedy had advised Johnson to meet with the student workers's parents. He also suggested Johnson make a statement expressing his ''personal concern for them and for their families.'' Less than an hour later, Eastland told Johnson he believed the whole incident was a hoax. ''I believe it's a publicity stunt,'' Eastland said. ''I don't think there's a damn thing to it. ''There's not a Ku Klux Klan in that area…. There's no organized white men in that area,'' Eastland said. ''Who could possibly harm them?'' Johnson asked Eastland whether the senator thought he should expand on an earlier statement on the investigation, as advised by Kennedy, and Eastland answered “no.” The name “Goodman” must have attracted the senator’s interest, since Goodman had family ties to Pacifica Broadcasting, a progressive, alternative broadcasting network founded in 1949 by pacifists. Goodman’s father, Robert, was President of the Pacifica Foundation and only a year prior to Andrew Goodman’s death, The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), headed by Senator Eastland, completed a three-year investigation of Pacifica’s programming, looking for "subversion.” In 1962, Pacifica station WBAI was the first station to publicly broadcast former FBI agent Jack Levine's exposé of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. The program was followed by threats of arrests and bombings, as well as pressure from the FBI, the Justice Department, and the FCC. Also that year, Pacifica trained volunteers to travel into the South for coverage of the awakening Civil Rights Movement. The station also took a strong anti-Vietnam war stance, helping to prompt the investigations. Eastland knew the names and backgrounds of all volunteer workers in advance of their arrival, including Goodman, since the senator requested this information from the Sovereignty Commission well before the opening of Freedom Summer, the Commission’s documents show. After the three young men were confirmed as missing, President Johnson told Eastland it might be best for him to have an aide meet with the workers' parents instead of doing so personally, Eastland agreed: ''I think it's going to turn out that there's nothing to it, anyway,” the senator said. Once the story about Mississippi’s missing civil rights volunteers got out, the media descended on Neshoba County. Editors of the Meridian Star described how Meridian’s citizens reacted to this invasion in a June 26 edition of the newspaper: They have never seen as many newsmen and photographers before and never expected to be focused in the spotlight of the world’s news…. They resent the ‘invasion’ of newsmen because they fear they will portray them falsely to a critical world…. Curious and stern Philadelphians were on the streets and sidewalks here, yesterday. They stared coldly at newsmen, seldom speaking. Obviously they do not know who to blame for the ‘invasion’ so they blame the newsmen and virtually show their resentment in cold stares. Florence Mars, in her memoir, Witness at Philadelphia, described her neighbors’ reactions once the burned car was found: “[T]he mood of the town was jovial; everybody thought it was a hoax. Although the rest of the country might fall for it, Neshoba County knew better: COFO arranged the disappearance to make us look bad so they can raise money in other parts of the country.” When the car was finally found, the mood of confidence quickly changed. “Many Neshobans started to rationalize that the victims had brought any mishap upon themselves because they had no business being in the county in the first place,” Mars wrote. In Washington, D. C., President Johnson conveyed the news to Schwerner's mother and Goodman's father, that the car was found. He also told the Schwerners that Mississippi Gov. Paul Johnson was working with the FBI but maintained he did not believe the three young men would be anywhere, except “perhaps in another part of this country.'' After a 44-day massive, national search, the bodies of all three civil rights activists were found. "THE NIGGER WAS FOUND ON TOP" read the August 5, 1964 headlines of the Meridian Star: “The injuries, besides the bullet holes,” the reporter concluded, "could only occur in a high speed airplane crash!" All three young men had been beaten, shot to death execution style and buried under an earthen dam of Mississippi red clay. With the Till case in 1955 and the 1959 abduction-murder of Mack Parker, “lynchings were increasingly regarded as distasteful, a blot on the reputation of a modern community,” noted Seth Cagin and Philip Gray, authors of We Are Not Afraid. “While people remained guarded on the subject, and some may have privately remained of the opinion that ‘uppity’ blacks required some ‘putting down,’ the lynch mob by 1964 was an anachronism.” Keywords: Chaney Schwerner Goodman Mississippi civil rights Neshoba Meridian CORE murder lynch About the Author Susan Klopfer, Parchman, Mississippi USA Susan Klopfer, an award winning journalist and author, writes on civil rights in Mississippi. Her newest book, "Where Rebels Roost: Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited" is set for publication May 15, 2005. "Where Rebels Roost" focuses on the Delta, Emmett Till, Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, Amzie Moore and many other civil rights foot soldiers. Emphasis on unsolved murders of blacks from mid 1950s on; publication date May 2005. ...

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