Mississippi Closes The Case On Freedom Summer Murders
52 years ago today, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner went missing—and the state has finally given up hope that their murderers will be brought to justice.
On June 21, 1964 three civil rights workers—two White and one Black—went missing in Mississippi. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner were murdered while volunteering to register Black voters during Freedom Summer.
“There’s nothing else we can do,” Hood said during a press conference. “Unless some other witnesses come forward, for history purposes the Mississippi Burning case is closed.”
The 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project was a 10-week voter registration program organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Nearly a thousand mostly White college students traveled to Mississippi to register Black voters and work in Freedom Schools.
It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement and Mississippi was, as Freedom Summer director Bob Moses once noted, “the middle of the iceberg.” The state was known for its violent resistance to anything that threatened the status quo. Segregation was the law of the land and White residents made sure it stayed that way by any means necessary.
And so it was here, where racism bled most heavily, that White and Black college-educated, well-intentioned, idealistic young activists came to change the world.
Chude Allen was one of them. At 20 years old she made the trek to Mississippi.
“I volunteered because I understood that the struggle to end segregation and racism in the South was one that was as important for White people as it was for Black people. This was my fight as well as other people’s fight,” says Allen. “I believed that racism was wrong and that segregation and the discrimination against African Americans was unjust and that unjust laws were to be challenged.”
But their optimism was dimmed with a dose of grim reality.
On the first day of Freedom Summer, the student volunteers learned that Chaney, 21, Goodman, 20 and Schwerner, 24, were missing. The three had traveled to Neshoba County, Miss., to investigate the bombing of a Black church. They never returned. Organizers feared the worst. This was Mississippi after all. Missing, says Allen, meant they were dead.
“When I volunteered, I knew I might die,” says Allen, who worked in Freedom Schools in Holly Springs, Miss. “White people in the U.S. didn’t care if Black people died, but they cared if White people did and that is what happened. They would never have looked for them if it had just been James Chaney and two of his friends. No one would have cared.”
The blue Ford station wagon the young men were driving was found burned two days after they went missing. But the bodies of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were not found until 44 days later on Aug. 4, in an earthen dam outside Philadelphia, Miss. The men had been shot. Chaney, the only African American, had been brutally beaten.
It was learned that the three civil-rights workers were pulled over and jailed by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price. Upon their release, they were met by a mob of Klansmen.
In 1967, 18 men were tried on federal civil rights charges. An all-White jury convicted seven of them on violating the civil rights of the Freedom Summer volunteers. Reports note that none of them served more than six years in prison. In 2005, on the 41st anniversary of the murders, Edgar Ray Killen, a small-town Baptist preacher, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in Mississippi’s Parchman prison.
But with Killen’s convictions, many questions remained: Who fired the fatal shots that killed the men and how many beat Chaney to death? The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Act of 2007 allowed the state to reopen the case in 2010.
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, noted that the “gruesome deaths” of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner “shook the nation.”
“The Justice Department has investigated this case three times over 50 years and has helped convict nine individuals for their roles in this heinous crime,” Gupta said in a statement. “The department’s focus during this third investigation honed in on determining whether sufficient admissible evidence existed to support further state prosecution against any surviving person for involvement in the murders.”
“Mississippi Attorney General Hood has determined that despite one of the most intensely investigated and documented underlying investigations of any racially-motivated murder during the 1960s, followed by the exhaustive efforts of more recent reinvestigations, the passage of time has simply rendered additional prosecutions impossible.”
Dave Dennis, former SNCC member and co-director of Freedom Summer, says the case has not been totally resolved and the investigation should not be closed.
“They haven’t brought everybody to justice that was involved,” says Dennis. “No one has opened the door around the conspiracy theory in terms of how deep and how far-reaching was this plan to commit these murders. That piece has never been uncovered about how the high levels of the law enforcement across the state could have been involved in what happened to Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Until they do that, I disagree with the fact that it’s closing.”
The state’s decision to close the case did not surprise Rev. Julia Chaney-Moss, sister of James Chaney. She says she was more surprised that Mississippi was actually willing to re-open or pursue the case again.
“What I felt was the gratitude of all that had been done and that someone had actually been charged and convicted of murdering J.E., Mickey and Andy. But unfortunately it was just one when we knew there were an array of individuals that really should have paid for that crime,” says Chaney-Moss, who was 17 when her brother was murdered.
“Everybody knew that Killen did not do this by himself. Sure, he may have orchestrated it or organized it, but he certainly didn’t do it by himself. But I’m a realist. Nothing goes on forever. I was appreciative that they continued as long as they did.”
In 2014, Chaney-Moss and her family traveled to the White House where President Obama gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to the three slain civil rights workers 50 years after their deaths. She notes, however, that there were many murders in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement that have never been investigated at all.
“It is so important that we not forget it was just not J.E., Mickey and Andy whose lives, whose blood was shed,” says Chaney-Moss. “There are dozens of other people who also need to be honored and need to be mourned for the loss of their lives.”
But what’s even more heartbreaking, says Chaney-Moss, is where we are today. Though things have changed, some things have remained the same she says. It’s “a crime” that more than a dozen states have voter restriction laws, Chaney-Moss laments. Also, Mississippi is the only state that still flies the Confederate Flag over its statehouse and most recently Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed a religious freedom bill targeting the LGBT community. The “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” would allow businesses, governments and others to refuse service to LGBT and transgendered persons based on their religious beliefs.
“We find ourselves with states across this country with Voter ID laws to prevent again people of color and young people from voting. We’re in a country that refuses to regulate assault weapons,” says Chaney-Moss. “The struggle continues in light of the voting rights laws, in light of the continued struggle for the privileges that J.E., Mickey and Andy sacrificed their lives. The work is yet to be done. The work is yet to be accomplished.”