In his decision to hold a Saturday campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of a 1921 race riot in which an angry white mob killed an estimated 300 people and burned the black business district, President Trump has, as news reports have rightly noted, borrowed a page from the Ronald Reagan playbook. In 1980 Reagan launched his presidential campaign from the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman.
Reagan spoke, as The New York Times report of his August 4 speech noted, “before a crowd made up almost entirely of whites,” and he made no mention of the murders of 16 years earlier. In a speech carefully coded to win over southern white voters, Reagan declared, “I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much at the private level as they can.”
This Sunday marks the June 21, 1964, anniversary of the deaths of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, and in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, theirs is a story that needs retelling alongside that of the Tulsa riot.
Schwerner and Goodman were white New Yorkers. Chaney was a black Mississippian, and they were part of the Mississippi Summer Project, an effort led by an alliance of civil rights organizations, most importantly the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to register African-American voters and start Freedom Schools.
The idea was to use college students and veteran civil rights workers to challenge the racism of the most violently segregated state in the country. “If we can crack Mississippi, we will likely be able to crack the system in the rest of the country,” SNCC’s chairman and current Georgia congressman, John Lewis, declared.
On June 21, the first indication that Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman might be in trouble came when they failed to arrive home after visiting a black church in Neshoba County that had been burned to the ground after its congregation agreed to let the Summer Project house a Freedom School in the church. On Tuesday, when the station wagon the three men had been driving was found in the nearby Bogue Chitto swamp, any thought that they might be alive vanished.
In the past, civil rights murders in Mississippi had all too often gone unpunished and ignored, but the publicity surrounding the Mississippi Summer Project changed that. The FBI under orders from President Lyndon Johnson became involved in the hunt for the three men, and from private and public sources came offers of rewards for information. Finally, the tips paid off. In early August the bodies of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman were discovered buried in an earthen dam six miles south of Philadelphia. All three had been shot at close range, and Chaney had been beaten especially badly.
The state of Mississippi was not about to bring the men accused of killing Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman to trial for murder, but the Justice Department was able to gain federal indictments on criminal civil rights conspiracy charges against Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and six co-defendants. In 1967, all seven were convicted, and in 1970 after a series of appeals they began serving their sentences. Years later an eighth figure, Edgar Ray Killen, would be convicted on three counts of manslaughter in the deaths of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman.
While the search for Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman was going on, President Johnson, who had been steering what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress, used the public sympathy the murders had generated to gain final passage of the legislation in time to sign it into law by July 2 in a public ceremony that included Martin Luther King Jr.
The families of James Chaney and Michael Schwerner had hoped their sons might be buried together. But no white undertaker would transport Schwerner to a black cemetery, and the black undertaker handling James Chaney’s funeral feared that he would lose his license if he handled a white body.
In 1989 in a speech delivered on the anniversary of the three civil rights workers’ deaths, Dick Molpus, a progressive, white secretary of state for Mississippi, who would later be defeated in an effort to become governor, delivered a long overdue apology for the racial violence Mississippi had once condoned. “We deeply regret what happened here 25 years ago. We wish we could undo it," Molpus told a gathering at the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi. No such expression of regret ever came from Ronald Reagan, who went on to win the presidency with majorities in 1980 and 1984 that Donald Trump might envy.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America.