SCHWERNER, CHANEY AND GOODMAN
MINBUR, The FBI File for Mississippi Burning, a file spanning over forty years from June 21, 1964 until June, 2005.
MINBUR tells of brutality, murder, injustice at the beginning of the Civil Rights Era in the mid-Sixties. The summer of 1964 was known as Freedom Summer. Thousands of people joined the racial equality movement from all parts of the country to volunteer their time and effort. One of them, Michael Schwerner, a 24 year old, Cornel University sociology student from New York, twenty year old Anthony Goodman, a Queens’ College anthropology major from New York’s Upper West Side joined the movement. Another, a Black activist, working Neshoba County, Mississippi, James Chaney helped to rally Blacks into registering to vote, learning to read and rebuild their lives. Freedom Schools were set up where people could come and participate. Mt. Zion Church in Longdale, Neshoba County in Mississippi became a Freedom School and a safe haven for people who needed help. Aside from helping the blacks join the process of civil rights people were urged to use their new found power to boycott those White owned business that denied them.
Infuriated and intimating the white community who were long use to subservient Black society. Generations of White were used to the structure of the community they felt they controlled. During the sixties white people grew angry and frustrated at the government giving such latitude to those ‘inferior’ to them. They turned to the Klu Klux Klan, popular especially in Mississippi, where the Klan protected a way of life. Many of the Klan members were those merchants whom black people boycotted and the police who felt they were losing their established stranglehold of authority against minorities. They called Schwerner “goatee” and “Jew-boy” and the KKK perceived people from CORE as a threat to their very lives and social order.
Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights, organized his minion to stop Schwerner and Chaney from enabling the Blacks to power.
The Klan, covered in white sheets and hooded, as a ritual or to hide their identity, while the police openly dressed in uniforms to bring fear to the people. They wanted to stop Schwerner at Mt. Zion church. As the service ended and church attendees came out into the night air they smelled the liquor on the clothes and breath of the gang who stood in front of them shoulder to shoulder with shotgun, pistols and two by fours in their hand. The fact that Schwerner wasn’t there enraged the Klansman. They took it out on the parishioners beating them with the heavy lumber and rifle butts. One woman fell to her knees crying and begging for mercy. After the beating they set fire to Mt. Zion church, they wanted to bait those who dared to change their ways.
Schwerner, in Oxford, Ohio, heard about the fire. He didn’t recognize it as a lure to bring him back. He was concerned about the beatings and the condition of the Church-Freedom School. All night his friend James Chaney drove Schwerner and Goodman back to Longdale. They were able to see the carnage of what was left of Mt. Zion and talk to the victims of the beatings. The trap, however, was set and driving back from Mt. Zion to Meridian, Mississippi Deputy Sherriff Cecil Price spotted the lite blue CORE station. Deputy Price, at first pulled them over because, as he noted in his report, the car didn’t slow down fast enough to 35 mph when they crossed into the city limits. He didn’t cite them with a ticket. Instead the Deputy jailed them under the suspicion of being the Mt. Zion church arsonists.
Of course Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney weren’t offered the right to make a phone call to the CORE office in Ohio. The Miranda Rights was still two years away from being legislated. After a while concerned CORE officials started making their own phone calls. They telephoned the police in Neshoba County. They spoke to the jailer’s wife, Minnie Herring, who told the caller nobody fitting those descriptions was seen. CORE had no reason to disbelieve the woman would be lying to them. It wasn’t that the woman was evil. The culture in the South was like another country. Intolerant and strict, everybody fell under the ideas of protecting themselves from false evils. Before the call, Minnie Herring served the three young men chicken and dumplings for dinner. She knew the boys CORE was calling about were indeed there. It was June 21, 1964, Father’s Day, and no one outside the circle of the biased mentality of the Klan would see them alive.
Later that night, about 10:30 pm, Price charged Chaney a $20 fine for speeding and released the three men from jail. Price walked them to their car along with policeman Richard Willis and told them to leave town. It was a ruse. Deputy Price and Willis followed them in their squad car south on Highway 19. At Pilgrims store the Klan were preparing and stoking their animal fury. Preacher Edgar Ray Killen, who was asked by Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers to organize the Klansman for the killing joined the gang at the Pilgrim’s parking lot where he found his partners in crime, his neighbors, his fellow church members, his fellow Klansman fighting over the right of who would pull the trigger.
It wasn’t long until the gang saw the targeted blue car and deputy Price, in his police car with his red lights flashing. The Klansman joined in the chase following Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. It was the plan organized by Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers told them to follow. Chaney knew he couldn’t outrun the convoy following him so he pulled to the side of the road. Soon, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were surrounded by thirty men with bats, guns and rifles. They pulled the three workers from the car and shoved them into the deputy’s police car. Deputy Price, proving his authority struck Chaney in the head with his police baton to force him faster into the cruiser. Jimmy Arledge drove the station wagon down the highway and turned onto the darkened Rock Cut Road and everyone exited from their car dragging the three CORE volunteers out of the car.
At the side of the remote Rock Cut Road, Klansman, Bar Owner and thug Alton Wayne Roberts walked up to Michael Schwerner first, asking him if he was a nigger lover, then, at point blank shot Schwerner in the chest. He died before he hit the ground. Roberts slowly turned and dragged Anthony Goodman out of the car shooting him dead in the head and shoulder.
Meridian trailer salesman James Jordan ran over, yelling, “Save one for me!” He grabbed the last CORE volunteer James Chaney out of the car who managed to wrestle his way from the crowd of murders only to back himself into a dead end. Chaney knew some of the men and begged for his life. James Jordan shot Chaney in the stomach, exclaiming, “You didn’t leave me nothing but a nigger, but at least I killed me a nigger.” Alton Wayne Roberts then fired into Chaney’s lower back and his head.
The murdered men were hauled by their wrist and ankles and shoved back into the car. Horace Burnette had to stuff Schwerner ankle into the car. They drove the car to the Old Jolly Farm, owned by Olen Burrage. Posey and Arledge dumped the lifeless bodies into a hole Herman Tucker, a bulldozer operator, with six children, who first dug the hole filled it back up with the three dead bodies. Everyone watched. The deed was done. They thought no one would be the wiser.
By June 23, 1964 the FBI was called in to investigate the disappearance of the three civil rights workers. The back waters of Mississippi had no grasp of the national surge of the Civil Rights movement and the hornet’s nest they disturbed. Their world was limited and provincial. Their information was folk lore based upon their own needs and wants of greed and stature based upon generational, limited, patriarchal hierarchy.
Joseph Sullivan was appointed to head the investigation. Sullivan had worked for the FBI since 1941, after graduating from law school in the late thirties. By the early 1950's, Sullivan had joined the FBI's Domestic Intelligence division, whose responsibilities included keeping an eye on the KKK and other violent organizations.
The investigation was not made easy by tight-lipped Philadelphians living in Mississippi. Everyone not from Neshoba County was considered outsiders. Sullivan said 'They, the Klan, owned the place. In spirit everyone belonged to the Klan." Local residents would often delight in sending Sullivan's agents on wild goose chases. Eventually informants were developed that led to the uncovering of the central facts of the case. All the key informants were members of the Lauderdale County (Meridian) klavern, not the Neshoba County (Philadelphia) klavern.
Sullivan reported that "the pressure from Washington for some solution was really intense." Within weeks after his arrival in Mississippi, Sullivan was visited first by FBI Assistant Director Al Rosen. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover also met Sullivan in Jackson. Sullivan's investigation was even assisted by the military, which sent busloads of sailors from the Meridian Naval Station to aid in the search for bodies in the snake and bug infested woods and swamps of east central Mississippi where the temperature and humidity were stifling.
Almost eleven days after the murder, two day before the 4th of July, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964.
On October 13 Klan member James ‘I killed myself a nigger’ Jordan, Chaney’s killer, confessed his involvement in the conspiracy of the murders to the FBI and agreed to cooperate in its investigation
A month later on November 19th Klan member another rogue, Horace Barnette, who stuffed Schwerner’s body into the car, confessed and described the actual shootings.
In two weeks, on December 4th, nineteen members of the conspiracy were arrested and charged with violating the civil rights of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman.
Six days later, on December 10, 1964, in the midst of the Mississippi Burning investigation, Martin Luther King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech he says: "I believe that even amid today's motor bursts of whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men."
The same day King accepted the award on behalf of those in the movement who deserve the profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time,' a U. S. Commissioner dismissed the charges, declaring that the confession of the murders of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman based on hearsay evidence.
Like a battle, a month later, government attorneys secured indictments against the conspirators from a federal grand jury in Jackson, Mississippi.
In January the Justice department convened a Grand Jury and re-indicted those who were released by the commissioner. On February 24, 1965, however Federal Judge William Harold Cox, a defiant and ardent segregationist, threw out the indictments again against all conspirators other than the Sheriff/part time preacher Rainey and Deputy Price on the ground that the other seventeen were not acting "under color of state law."
Judge William Howard Cox was appointed to the federal bench by President Kennedy in order to appease Senator James Eastland, the powerful chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Eastland was determined to win an appointment for Cox, his former roommate at Ole Miss, and campaigned shamelessly on his behalf. Eastland reportedly said to Robert Kennedy, "Tell your brother that if he will give me Harold Cox, I will give him the nigger, future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, who Kennedy was hoping to place on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals."
Although Judge Cox had assured Robert Kennedy prior to his appointment that he would conscientiously apply federal law, once on the bench he did what he could to frustrate Justice Department initiatives aimed at bringing about integration.
Showing his integrity in March of ‘64, Judge Cox referred to a group of black witnesses scheduled to testify as "a bunch of chimpanzees."
In a justice tug of war for supremacy almost two years after the murders and the throwing out of the indictments against the conspirators who took the lives of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, the Supreme Court of the United States reinstated the indictments overruling Judge Cox.
By October, 1967 the trial of the Neshoba Conspirators began. United States vs. Cecil Price was the first Civil Rights Trial in the United States.
In two days, the jury returned verdicts of guilty against seven conspirators.
On December 29, Judge Cox while imposing sentences commented: "They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man-- I gave them all what I thought they deserved." Roberts, the triggerman, and Bowers got ten years, accomplice Posey. Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price was sentenced by Judge Cox to a six-year prison term. He served his time at Sandstone federal penitentiary in Minnesota. After his release in 1974, Price returned to Philadelphia where he worked as a surveyor, oil company driver, and as a watchmaker in a jewelry shop. Price died on May 6, 2001. He died in the same hospital in Jackson where thirty-seven years earlier he helped transport the bodies of the three slain civil rights workers for autopsies.
Wayne Roberts, triggerman served part of his 10 year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. He died six years later.
Sam Bowers, Imperial Wizard of the local Klan, was sentenced for ten years for murder of the three CORE murders but served six. Described as "typical of the semi-worldly, semi-literate" men who occupied leadership positions within the Klan. He was also known for his white supremacy, anti-Supreme Court views, a passion for guns and explosives, and "a swastika fetish. Bowers was quoted as saying after the murders that "It was the first time that Christians had planned and carried out the execution of a Jew." Bowers was found guilty in another murder Washington State. In 1988, for the murder of Vernon Dahmer, a civil rights activist in Hattiesburg. Bowers is alive and in custody at the Central Mississippi Correction Facility near Pearl.
Among the conspirators nine were acquitted, and the jury was unable to reach a verdict on three of the men charged. Deputy Sheriff Willis joined Deputy Price in the chase of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. Owner of the Old Jolly Farm Burrage and bulldozer operator Herman Tucker were among those acquitted.
Sheriff Rainey, co-defendant organized the Klansman for the murder was acquitted. A white woman juror couldn’t find it in her heart to convict a part time preacher and Rainey played it up. He became a virtual folk hero to local whites. He received applause, pats on the back, gifts, and even was sought to endorse products and services ranging from chewing tobacco to chiropractic back pain treatments. After his trial, Rainey was unable to find employment in law enforcement. He found work as a security guard first at a supermarket, then at the Meridian Mall. Rainey complained in the mid-seventies, "The FBI set out to break me of everything l had, then keep me down where I could never get another start, and they done it." Rainey suffered from throat cancer and tongue cancer. He died on November 8, 2002 at age 79.
Killen, a former unsuccessful candidate for sheriff, was a marginal character as a Baptist minister until Sam Bowers appointed him "kleagle," or klavern recruiter and organizer, for the Neshoba and Lauderdale County Klan. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on Killen's guilt. One of the jury said she could not convict a preacher for murder.
In 2004 however, Killen created a public uproar when he declared that he would organize a Ku Klux Klan rally for the 2004 Mississippi annual State Fair In response, More than forty years after the initial killings, in June 2005, Killen was retried on state charges. Judge Marcus Gordon sentenced Killen to serve three 20-year terms, one for each conviction of manslaughter in connection with the deaths of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in 1964. Judge Gordon said in pronouncing sentence, "I have taken into consideration that there are three lives in this case and that the three lives should be absolutely respected." Sentencing followed Killen's conviction earlier in the week. After nearly three days of jury deliberations. The jury found that there was reasonable doubt as to whether Killen intended to kill the civil rights workers, and returned three consecutive life terms for manslaughter.
- Donna Ladd @ www.jacksonfreepress.com>
- Leesha Faulkner @ www.djournal.com/pages