Suspected Ku Klux Klansman Tried

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Suspected Ku Klux Klansman Tried

June 1964 Murders of Three Civil Rights Workers


By: Kyle Carter

Date: June 14, 2005

Source: Corbis.

About the Photographer: Kyle Carter is a freelance photographer based in Meridian, Mississippi.


The early 1960s were a time of many changes in America, particularly in the area of African-American Civil Rights. Although African-Americans had been given the Constitutional right to vote previously (the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870), many were barred from registering or voting in the Southern regions of the country. Many areas required that African-Americans pass prohibitively stringent "literacy" tests, mandated that they pay exorbitant poll taxes, or actively prevented them from gaining access to voting registration areas by changing hours, physically moving to different locations, and employing fear-based or violent techniques such as threats, lynchings, burnings (homes, vehicles, stores, etc.).

Mississippi had an extremely low percentage of registered African-American voters, and civil rights activists sought to change that by assisting citizens to secure their voting privileges. In 1964, there was a large-scale movement coordinated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Mississippi Council of Federated Organizations, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to end voting discrimination in the South, called "Freedom Summer." Several hundred (predominantly Caucasian) college students, primarily from the Northeast, traveled to Mississippi to engage in a multidimensional program involving education, health care, transportation and accompaniment through the registration process, among other things. There was a great deal of media coverage of the program, and it garnered considerable public support. The young people involved in the "Freedom Summer" programs received many threats, and were threatened, harangued, and accosted, not just by white supremacists and extremist group members, but by the general population and by public servants such as police officers as well. Homes and businesses associated with the movement were vandalized, firebombed, or burned, many of the program volunteers were arrested or harassed by local law enforcement officers, others were threatened or physically beaten, and still others were subject to violence by large groups of local citizens.

The most significant acts of violence (from a social change perspective), and those that had the greatest, longest-lasting impact on the African-American civil rights movement concerned the abduction and murders of three young activists named Andy (Andrew) Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. They had gone to investigate the firebombing of a church near Philadelphia, Mississippi, and had been arrested for an alleged traffic violation while en route. Subsequent to their arrests, they were jailed for several hours, and then released. They were not seen alive again after that. Their bodies were recovered about six weeks later, buried under a clay dam on a farm. Schwerner and Goodman, who were both Caucasian, had been shot once, at close range, in the chest. Chaney had been beaten as well as shot (some reports state that he was beaten to death, and was not shot). There was a great deal of nationwide media coverage concerning the murders, and much public sentiment suggested that this was primarily because two of the victims were Caucasian; this was supported by the fact that hundreds of crimes against African-Americans, including murders, remained uninvestigated and unsolved. It was believed that the Ku Klux Klan had ordered the trio murdered; nineteen men stood trial for the killings, and seven were convicted as a result, the first time that a case had successfully been prosecuted in Mississippi for the killing of civil rights activists.

There is a plaque affixed to the rebuilt Mt. Zion Methodist church, the firebombing of which Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman had been on their way to investigate on the day they were killed. It reads, in part: "Victims of a Klan conspiracy, their deaths provoked national outrage and led to the first successful prosecution of a civil rights case in Mississippi."



See primary source image.


In addition to the lynching deaths of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, during the summer months of 1964, there were more than thirty churches burnt or firebombed, more than one thousand civil rights activists or "Freedom Summer" volunteers arrested, and several thousand beatings were reported in Mississippi.

The three young men were reported missing within hours of their failure to complete a required safety check-in. They were reported kidnapped, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation quickly became involved in a massive search for them. The high profile case was codenamed "Mississippi burning, or MIBURN" by the FBI. The car that the men had been using was found within a couple of days of their disappearance. It had been burned out. Several days after the disappearance of the three men, the FBI established their first permanent office in Mississippi. After a reward was offered for information leading to the resolution of the case, informants came forward and the bodies were recovered (six weeks after the men were abducted). Ultimately, several Klan members became FBI informants, and one, James Jordan, decided to testify on behalf of the prosecution, in return for a financial reward and governmental assistance with relocation for himself and his family. The first nineteen arrests in the case were made in December of 1964. The charges were dismissed six days later. One month later, federal grand jury indictments were returned against the nineteen. One month later (February of 1965), a federal judge dismissed the indictments against seventeen of those charged, leaving only Sheriff Rainey and Deputy Sheriff Price to stand trial. The case was heard by the United States Supreme Court in March of 1966, and indictments against eighteen men were reinstated (some of these were different than the first group of nineteen). The case went to trial in October of 1967, with three Klan informants providing significant testimony for the prosecution, one of whom was a witness to the murders (James Jordan). The jury was initially deadlocked, but eventually returned convictions on seven of the defendants, acquitted eight of the others, and was unable to reach a verdict in the case of three men (one of whom was Edgar Ray Killen). The felony convictions represented a landmark for civil rights in Mississippi, as this was the first time that there had been a successful prosecution in that state for the murder of civil rights workers. It also served to focus nationwide, and global, attention to the lack of civil rights for African-Americans in the American South. Thirty-five years later (1999), the state of Mississippi reopened the case, which had been tried on a federal, but not a state, level. In addition to a strong belief in seeing that justice is served a part of the reason for re-examining the case would be to exorcise some of the lingering negative perceptions concerning racism in the American South.

On June 23, 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, the eighty year old preacher who was not convicted in 1967, was found guilty of manslaughter in connection with the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Andrew Schwerner, and sentenced to three twenty year terms of imprisonment (two decades for each victim). For many, there was a significant degree of satis-faction in the public demonstration that justice had eventually been served, and that the concept of racism.



Ball, Howard. Murder in Mississippi: United States v. Price and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Krane, Dale, and Stephen D. Shaffer. Mississippi Government & Politics: Modernizers Versus Traditionalists. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Levy, Peter B. The Civil Rights Movement. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Web sites

BBC News. "Mississippi Murders Revisited." 〈〉 (accessed March 7, 2006). "Freedom Summer." 〈〉 (accessed March 7, 2006).

Knight Ayton Management. "Justin Webb." 〈〉 (accessed March 7, 2006).