Civil rights activist and author, Nan Woodruff, holds a protest sign near the Philadelphia, Miss. courthouse calling for re-examination of the murders of three civil rights workers that took place during Freedom Summer, back in 1964.
Woodruff and others have been asking for several years why only one man, Edgar Ray Killen, was ever tried and convicted for the crime. (Photo by Susan Klopfer)
A new turn has been taken in an old Mississippi civil rights murder case.
X-rays show two bullets were never removed from James Chaney, says a world-renowned forensic pathologist, Dr. Michael Baden of New York City. “They’re still in his body, and they could be matched to the weapons that did it.”
Exhuming the body of this civil rights worker could help identify others involved in the Ku Klux Klan’s 1964 killings of Chaney and two other civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, Baden says.
The murders of Chaney, a 21-year-old black man from Meridian, Mississippi; Goodman, a 20-year-old white Jewish anthropology student from New York; and Schwerner, a 24-year-old white Jewish CORE organizer and former social worker also from New York, symbolized the risks of participating in the Civil Rights Movement in the South during what became known as “Freedom Summer”, dedicated to voter registration.
Chaney’s brother, Ben, told reporter Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson Clarion Ledger that he and his family support an exhumation. “If they (FBI agents) want to take the bullets from my brother, we’ll do that,” he said. “Whatever they need.”
* * * * *
This is an old murder case left over from the civil rights movement, and a sad one. The good news is that the FBI is reinvestigating the trio’s killings.
No murder weapons were ever found in the trio’s killings, but apparently a former inmate living in a cell next to the man convicted for the triple murders recently told FBI agents that Edgar Ray Killen, now serving 60 years in prison, talked of a murder weapon being buried on his property. Killen, who was a part-time preacher, lived in Union.
There has long been a demand by many following this case that justice was not done — that others are still free who actually killed the three young men. Maybe something is finally going to be done.
Here’s what I wrote back in 2005:
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, Mississippi.
Now forty-one years later, at least one alleged Klansman is set to stand trial June 13 in Philadelphia, Mississippi for the murders that symbolize the Magnolia state 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 attended the national NAACP convention, and upon hearing the news immediately went to work trying to learn more.
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 families and others pressured the FBI did agents go to work, soon finding the volunteers’ 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 June 21st.
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.
It 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 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.
The schoolhouse, the Mount Zion Church, which had been so perfect for the freedom school 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 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. 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’ 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. 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.
Sovereignty Commission documents show that 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.
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.”
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.”
This is the first part of a 2-part article.
Keywords: Chaney Schwerner Goodman Mississippi civil rights Neshoba Meridian CORE murder lynch
More bodies found
During the search for the missing civil rights workers, a fisherman found the bodies of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, two Meadville residents who had been missing since May.
After conducting an extensive investigation, the FBI arrested James Ford Searle and Charles Marcus Edwards, two Klansmen who worked for the International Paper Company. Edwards signed a confession. The FBI passed the confession and other evidence to prosecutors, but the State chose not to seek an indictment.
The first conviction for a racially motivated murder in a Southern state came from Alabama, instead, in December 1965. The first federal civil rights conviction also came in Alabama, on the next day.
Thirty-five shootings, thirty bombings, thirty-five church burnings, eighty beatings, and at least six racially motivated murders took place in Mississippi during the first eight months of 1964. Fourteen died in civil rights-related killings. This violence constituted a “deliberate pattern of Klan terror,” according to the FBI.
By the following spring, Sovereignty Commission director Johnston was definitely looking for a direct link between Andrew Goodman and “communists.” On February 26, 1965, he wrote a letter to newly elected Congressman Prentiss Walker, requesting that he “ask the HUAC for any information about the Pacifica Foundation of New York…. We have reason to believe this foundation also is subversive.”
Walker, whose district included Philadelphia, Mississippi wrote back to Johnston that he had been in contact with Congressman John Ashbrook, HUAC chair, who offered a “thorough search … to obtain any information on the people and organizations mentioned.”
Included on Walker’s list he sent to the Sovereignty Commission was Robert Goodman (the same name as Andrew’s father) but the HUAC committee’s director reported he could find no records of any testimony by Goodman.
Johnston also mailed to Eastland a list of COFO workers “in the Mississippi Summer Project as of August 1964,” explaining he had obtained this list through “one of our pipelines” and that it was possible “some of these names are in the files of the Senate Internal Security Committee or the House Un-American Activities Committee,” referring, of course, to Goodman.
Chaney’s younger brother, Ben Chaney, would ultimately document a direct relationship between the Klan, the Sovereignty Commission, and the Citizens Councils that led to the murder of the three volunteers. In 1999 he presented his findings to the New York Bar Association:
After careful review of the available evidence, including the 2,900 pages of the transcript from the 1967 federal trial, a list of exhibits found in the appendix to the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and two signed confessions, it is evident that an organization known as the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was complicit in the murders of the three civil rights workers.
Using the Commission’s own files as documentation, Ben Chaney asserted that the Commission provided legitimacy to the white Citizens’ Council and the Klan:
•The Commission was a source of information for the Citizens’ Council and the Klan;
•The Commission worked to impede the federal investigation of the murders;
•It thwarted a state prosecution;
•Then-Governor (and Commission member) Paul Johnson withheld information from the FBI;
•By gathering and distributing information about Michael Schwerner and his travel plans to Klansmen in Meridian and Philadelphia, Mississippi, the Commission participated in the murders of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman.
It was in the atmosphere of Freedom Summer that the White Knights, a more violent offshoot of the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was born with its mission “to serve as an auxiliary to local law enforcement agencies, the Commission, and the Citizens’ Council, and to promote terror through violence.”
From April 1964 until December 1964 alone, the White Knights were responsible for more than fourteen murders before voting to eliminate Michael Schwerner. After Schwerner and his wife, Rita, had arrived in Mississippi in January and began working in a community center in Meridian, three investigators from the Commission “made a personal visit to each sheriff in the 82 [Mississippi] counties . . . . During these trips to each county, the investigators updated [their] files on [the] activities of subversives and agitators,” Ben Chaney told ABA members.
Ben Chaney found Sovereignty Commission records which “indicated that in February 1964, a member of the Citizens’ Council obtained the license plate number of Schwerner’s car and circulated a description of the car throughout the state.” In March, the Commission began an intensive surveillance of the Schwerners, reporting that….
Both Michael and Rita Schwerner are in Meridian working for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). Their purpose there is evidently to contact local Negroes for the purpose of encouraging them to register to vote and also to teach them how to pass the voter registration examination. “In other words, it was less than three months after the Schwerners’ arrival in Mississippi, that the Commission knew where they lived, where they worked, whom they saw, and their mode of transportation,” Ben Chaney told Bar members.
A massive FBI investigation into the murders of the three civil rights workers was finally launched culminating in a trial in October of 1967. Of those charged with violating the civil rights of the slain trio (by men linked to the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan), jurors convicted seven, acquitted three and deadlocked on three, including being deadlocked 11-1 in favor of the guilt of Edgar Ray Killen. Seven Klansmen went to prison; none served more than six years.
Then in 2004 the state of Mississippi re-opened the Killen case for investigation under the direction of Attorney General Jim Hood and Killen, 79, was set to go on trial as early as March 28, 2005 on the first-ever murder charges in the 1964 slayings of the three civil rights workers. Killen’s indictment marked the 27th such arrest since 1989 involving killings from the civil rights era, arrests that have led to 21 convictions.
Why only Killen? Ten people, in fact, who faced federal conspiracy to deny civil rights or other charges in the 1960s related to the murders of the three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi were still alive in 2005. Learning about the re-opened case, Ben Chaney told reporters that he was pleased that Killen was finally arrested.
“If it was up to me, he would sit in a jail cell and watch life pass him by. For the rest of his life — just watch it go by,” Chaney told a CNN reporter from New York, where he was residing.
But Chaney, only 10 when his older brother was killed, also called the new investigation a charade, saying the Mississippi attorney general went after the weakest person in the investigation, bypassing the “prominent whites” who he claimed were involved in the killings, and focusing on only a few “unapologetic” Klansmen:
“I remember my mother and the agony she went through. The pain that was on her face …. She used to walk around the house, day and night. She used to clean up the house top to bottom, over and over again, just to keep busy during the disappearance. Then, finally, once the bodies were found and the burial took place, she just broke down.”
The gravestone of James Earl Chaney had been desecrated in Mississippi for about 25 years, Chaney said. A sheriff once told him it was because the grave site “represented a symbol for young people in the area to stand up.”
The alleged Klan leader, meanwhile insisting on his innocence, was released from the Neshoba County Jail on $250,000 bond on Wednesday, January 12, 2005 for the killings that took place nearly 41 years before. Under Mississippi law, bond in cases that don’t involve the death penalty can be denied only if there is a risk of flight or community danger.
In March of 2005, Killen – a sawmill owner and preacher – was badly injured in a lumber accident when a tree he was felling on his land landed on his legs; both legs were broken and there were other injuries, leading some to question via a popular Jackson internet civil rights news group “who might want to kill Killen the same way ‘they’ killed Cecil Price right before he (Price) was supposed to go to court?”
(Killen’s accident happened on the same day that FBI director Robert Mueller was visiting the Mississippi field office for the first time since he started the job in 2001. The reasons for his visit were not disclosed, except that he had made a commitment to visit all FBI field offices during his appointment. There was also a bomb threat at the Neshoba County Courthouse in January, when Killen was arraigned and the courthouse was evacuated for 30 minutes.)
One responder suggested that “Among other things, Killen brags of his close relationship with Senator Eastland. I am sure there are plenty of people who would rather Killen not be questioned under oath.” Because of the accident, it was expected Killen’s trial would not take place until June of 2005.
According to testimony in the 1967 federal conspiracy trial, Killen helped coordinate the events leading to the Klan’s execution of the trio, but the jury had deadlocked 11-1 in favor of his guilt when the holdout juror told others she could “never convict a preacher.”
Killen had always denied being in the Klan, stating he had no motive to kill the trio because “he didn’t learn until later that Schwerner and Goodman ‘were both communists.’” Killen once told Clarion-Ledger reporter Mitchell he learned about such communist allegations because he had access to U. S. intelligence information.
“He talked repeatedly of his close relationship with U. S. Sen. Jim Eastland, D-Miss., who headed the Senate Internal Security subcommittee.”
Killen had not avoided spending prison time entirely. In 1976 he was convicted on unrelated charges for threatening a woman over the telephone. While denying any role in the 1964 killings, Killen did admit to participating in an early civil rights incident involving the arrest in 1958 of Clennon King who tried to become the University of Mississippi’s first black student and was put into the state’s mental hospital instead. But Clennon King later said Killen was not involved.
” … a palpable sense of the killings”
Mississippi journalist and self-described “good ole boy,” the late Willie Morris, known for speaking out on civil rights matters with passion and some candor, believed there was some feeling in Mississippi after the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner “that we hit the bottom of the barrel … and that the better people of the South and of Mississippi must, as Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, ‘Try to respond to the better angels of our nature.’”
Morris, a native of Yazoo City, in a 1983 interview by author Studs Terkel talked about Florence Mars, a liberal white woman who served as his informant as he covered the Philadelphia, Mississippi story:
“Her courage comes in strange packages. She was forty years old during The Troubles (they always called that period “The Troubles”) and here she was one of the handful of human beings in the town who stood up to the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan controlled the police and a lot of the city government.
“In fact, it interested me that almost the only people in the town who stood up to the Klan were women. A few of them were the wives of Catholics who knew their husbands were not secretly members of the Klan because of the Klan’s traditional stance against the Pope.”
Once visiting the spot where the three murders took place at sunset on Rock Cut Road, Morris said he’d written of experiencing a “palpable sense of these killings taking place in those red gullies…. The South and Mississippi could not stoop any lower.”
Keywords: Chaney Schwerner Goodman Mississippi civil rights Neshoba Meridian CORE murder lynch