Chaney, James Earl, Goodman, Andrew and Schwerner, Michael Henry
CHANEY, James Earl, Andrew GOODMAN and Michael Henry SCHWERNER
CHANEY, James Earl (b. 30 May 1943 in Meridian, Mississippi; d. 21 June 1964 in Neshoba County, Mississippi), Andrew GOODMAN (b.23 November 1943 in New York City; d. 21 June 1964 in Neshoba County, Mississippi), and Michael Henry SCHWERNER (b. 6 November 1939 in New York City; d. 21 June 1964 in Neshoba County, Mississippi), civil rights workers whose abduction and murder by Ku Klux Klan members during the first days of Mississippi's Freedom Summer project drew national attention to the violence directed against the civil rights movement in the Deep South.
Chaney was the second of five children born to Ben Chaney, an itinerant plasterer, and Fannie Lee Roberth Chaney, a domestic worker. After being expelled from high school he worked for his father before joining the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the winter of 1964 as an unpaid staff member.
Goodman was the middle son of Robert, a contractor, and Carolyn Goodman. He attended the Walden School, a progressive private school in Manhattan with a mostly Jewish student body. There he became involved in liberal political causes. At the time he joined the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, Goodman had completed his junior year at Queens College, where he was an anthropology major.
Schwerner was the second son of Nathan, a partner in a wig manufacturing company, and Anne Schwerner, a high school biology teacher. He attended Cornell University, graduating with a degree in rural sociology in 1961. He enrolled in Columbia University's School of Social Work but dropped out in June 1962 to take a job as a settlement house worker. The same month he married Rita Levant. In 1963 the couple became active in protests against racial discrimination, and that fall they applied to CORE to go south to work in the freedom movement. On 16 January 1964 they arrived in Mississippi—the first full-time white civil rights workers in the state—and were sent to Meridian, where they operated a community center. Chaney assisted Schwerner in Meridian, frequently driving Schwerner over the back country roads he knew well. Despite his Ivy League background, Schwerner developed an easy rapport with the black youths who flocked to the center. His visibility made him a prime target for the Ku Klux Klan, whose members tagged him with the code name "Goatee."
In June 1964 Schwerner and Chaney traveled to Oxford, Ohio, where recruits for the Mississippi Freedom Summer were being trained. The project involved sending nearly a thousand volunteer civil rights workers, most of them white college students, into Mississippi to increase voter registration, develop political organization, and conduct "Freedom Schools," which were designed to teach basic academic skills to African-American children in order to supplement their woefully inadequate public school curriculum. On 20 June 1964 Schwerner and Chaney returned to Mississippi with Goodman, who had been assigned to Meridian. The next day they drove to the Longdale community in Neshoba County to investigate the burning of Mount Zion Methodist Church. The church had been offered as a site for a Freedom School, and this made it a target for Klan reprisal. After leaving Longdale they were arrested for speeding by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and taken to the county jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The three men were released from jail at 10:30 p.m. after paying a $20 fine. Ten miles outside of town, Price again stopped their blue station wagon and turned them over to a gang of Klansmen. The young men were murdered by the side of the road; their car was burned and their bodies buried.
When Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner failed to return to Meridian, CORE staffers notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and state police. The disappearance became national news the following day. Civil rights forces were convinced they had been killed, but local authorities claimed the trio had staged their own kidnapping to garner publicity. President Lyndon Johnson ordered a massive manhunt to locate the men. A force of FBI agents descended on the state to investigate. On 4 August 1964 the badly decomposed bodies were discovered beneath fifteen feet of earth in a farm pond dam. Autopsies revealed all three had been shot at close range and Chaney had been brutally beaten. The parents tried to hold an integrated funeral for their martyred sons but learned that Mississippi law did not permit it.
Chaney is buried in Okatibee Cemetery, Lauderdale County, Mississippi; Goodman is buried in Mount Judah Cemetery, Queens, New York; and Schwerner was cremated in New York City.
On 4 December 1964 nineteen men, including Price and Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, were arrested on federal charges of violating the victims' civil rights. After nearly three years of legal maneuvering, thirteen men were tried, and on 20 October 1967 seven were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to ten years. It was the first time Mississippi white men were found guilty of lynching. On 19 March 1970, after exhausting their appeals, the seven convicted men entered federal custody. No prosecution on state charges of murder was ever initiated.
Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner symbolize the idealistic youths who challenged the entrenched power of white supremacy in the Deep South. If their killing was intended to intimidate movement forces, it had the opposite effect. Activists "invaded" the state that summer, and Mississippi was permanently changed. In his history of the Mississippi civil rights movement, John Dittmer describes the visibility the murders brought to the Klan's activities and the resulting international outrage: "The Neshoba lynchings … were decisive in persuading the state's white elite that continued violent resistance to federal law would lead to political anarchy and economic devastation." The prosecution and conviction of the killers signaled an official willingness to confront the worst manifestations of southern racism.
Veteran journalist William Bradford Huie, Three Lives for Mississippi (1965), investigates the Neshoba County murders. The definitive account of the case is in Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi (1988). The feature film Mississippi Burning (1988) is based on the FBI investigation of the Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner murders. Although much of the film is fiction, its opening scene is a mostly accurate depiction of their execution. The impact of the murders on the summer project is examined in Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (1988). John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994), places the murders in the larger context of the Mississippi civil rights movement.
Paul T. Murray