’64 newspaper article on deaths of Miss. civil rights workers
The big bold headline on the framed yellowed newspaper told me plenty about what the editors of the Baltimore News American considered the most significant on Aug. 5, 1964: “U.S Bombs North Vietnam PT Bases, 2 Planes Lost.” They seemingly wanted the country to know that we were the victors against those recalcitrant North Vietnamese who had the audacity to go up against us.
Perusing the rest of the page, I saw another headline to the left that had more significance and resonance for me: “FBI Identifies Two Bodies as Rights Workers.”
I immediately knew whom the article was referring to – the three civil rights workers killed in Philadelphia, MS, on the night of June 21, 1964. The article by United Press International included photos of James Chaney, a black 21-year-old from Meridian, MS, and Michael Schwerner, 24, and Andrew Goodman, 20, both white men from New York.
Finding the article so close to the full-scale opening of the movie “Selma” seemed fitting to me. The movie relates a bloody encounter between peaceful civil rights protesters and some of the most rabidly hateful and terroristic law-enforcement officers in the South. The protesters were marching on March 7, 1965, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, on their way to Montgomery, in a state that two years earlier had allowed Klansmen to bomb a Birmingham church that left four little girls dead.
The white officers beat, pummeled and tear-gassed the protesters so bad – and in front of the news media – that their actions helped to change the course of history and propel the movement. People who did not understand what the civil right workers were up against were shaken from their stupor. This was the first of three marches, and the violence inflicted by state and local police on the marchers gave that day the name “Bloody Sunday.” The encounter was said to have helped in passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were among the civil rights workers who had waded into this southern thicket to help black people do something as simple as registering to vote – a practice that too few of us bother to carry out these days. The march came less than a year after they were killed.
The newspaper article offered some details of the tragedy. The bodies of the three men had been found in shallow graves the day before. Dental records helped to positively identify Schwerner and Goodman, but officials were still trying to positively identify Chaney.
The FBI statement, “read to newsmen by the agent in charge,” according to the article “… gave no cause of death nor did it say anything about arrests.”
More from the article:
“The bodies were discovered under dirt apparently excavated for a pond, placed in plastic bags and rushed to the University of Mississippi medical center here (Jackson, MS) by ambulance where experts worked through the night on the identifications.
The three men were active in the ‘Mississippi Project,’ a summer campaign by college students to register Negro voters.
They disappeared June 21 following their release from a Philadelphia jail where they had been held on a traffic charge after going there from Meridian to inspect a burned Negro church. Their burned station wagon was found the next day.”
The FBI noted that it would continue to investigate, according to the newspaper article, and Mississippi Gov. Paul Johnson Jr. said “the investigating forces of the state of Mississippi will exert every effort to apprehend those who have been responsible for their deaths.”
The governor, in fact, offered very little help. He said good things about the sheriff and deputy involved in the murders, and after many speculated that the civil rights workers had been killed, he callously suggested that “Maybe they went to Cuba.”
Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman worked for CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) to help register black voters during the “Mississippi Summer Project.” Civil rights organizations had recruited thousands of white college students from the North to participate in various civil rights projects in the South.
The three men drove to Neshoba County to interview members of Mount Zion Church, which had been burned down by Klansmen who apparently were looking for Schwerner, who had organized a boycott of a white store in Meridian. On the way back to Meridian in the afternoon, they were arrested and jailed (on suspicion of burning down the church or speeding; the accounts differ) by the Neshoba County deputy sheriff, a local Klansman who helped orchestrate the plan for their murder.
The three were released that evening but were then stopped by about two dozen Klansmen and taken to a remote area. Schwerner and Goodman were shot at close range, according to an informant, and Chaney was tortured and beaten before he was killed.
The disappearance of the three led to a widespread FBI search. An informant led authorities to their bodies buried underneath a 15-foot earthen dam in Philadelphia, MS, the county seat of Neshoba County. Their murders was said to have been instrumental in passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
An investigation was conducted by both local and federal authorities. When local officials refused to prosecute, federal agents did so. They charged 18 men that year with violating the civil rights of the three workers, but it would be several years of legal disputes before they went to trial. In 1967, an all-white jury found seven of them guilty, acquitted seven, could not reach a decision on three, and dropped the charges against one. The sentences ranged from three to 10 years, but none served more than six.
In 2005 Edgar Ray Killen went on trial for murder but the jury returned a conviction for manslaughter for his role in the slayings. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Last year, President Obama awarded Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.
Near the end of the newspaper article, the editors had juxtaposed that day’s “Today’s Chuckle.” I found the “joke” a bit ironic: “If Communism is as wonderful as they claim it is, it seems that they would take down their iron curtain and put up some picture windows.”
If only our own country would have done the same for its African American citizens.
By the way, when you go to see the “Selma movie,” look closely at the actor who plays Ralph David Abernathy, an advisor to King, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a major civil rights figure. The actor’s name is Colman Domingo, a Broadway theater veteran. I first saw him perform in a one-man show off-Broadway a couple years ago about the music that defined his life. He was fantastic, and I’m sure he’s done a good job in “Selma.” He was also in the plays “Passing Strange” and “Scottsboro Boys,” and had a role in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”