IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Freedom Summer’s agony revisited

Forty-one  years after the  murders of  civil rights activists  Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, a Baptist minister and former recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan is going on trial in their killings. By's Michael E. Ross.
The FBI distributed this poster in June 1964 announcing the disappearance of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. Their murders galvanized the civil rights movement.
The FBI distributed this poster in June 1964 announcing the disappearance of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. Their murders galvanized the civil rights movement.FBI
/ Source:

The facts are as dry and clinical as the stuff of any police blotter report: The bodies of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner were discovered by FBI agents near Philadelphia, Miss., on Aug. 4, 1964. The three men, civil rights workers who came south to register African Americans to vote, were shot to death sometime on June 21. Their Ford station wagon was torched and their bodies were bulldozed 17 feet under an earthen dam.

But for civil rights activists of long standing, and for a brother of one of the murdered men, the forthcoming trial of the principal suspect in the crime is unfinished business for America.

On Monday, in what’s thought to be one of the last pursuits of justice postponed from the civil rights era, the trial of 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen begins in Philadelphia with jury selection.

The Freedom Summer voter registration drive and the murder case galvanized the civil rights movement, ultimately inspiring the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.”

In a federal trial in 1967, seven men were convicted of federal charges of conspiracy and violating the workers’ civil rights. They were sentenced to prison terms of from three to 10 years. Killen, a Baptist minister and former recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan, was tried for the killings, but escaped conviction when a lone juror refused to convict him. Seven others also were acquitted.

Nearly four decades later, Killen was arrested again, on Jan. 6, this time on state charges.

Now or never
Stanley Dearman, a veteran Mississippi journalist, now retired, places the start of the effort to retry Killen at around 1989. “A group of citizens got together and wanted to put on a memorable event to mark the 25th anniversary,” he said.

After years of prodding by civil rights activists, state officials obtained the FBI files on the case from the Justice Department. The state Attorney General, Jim Hood, moved with alacrity shortly after taking office in January 2004.

Considerations of fading memories and Killen’s own advancing age also played a part in retrying him now. “Jim Hood realized that if it wasn’t done now, it would never be done,” Dearman said. Hood will prosecute the case, with Neshoba County District Attorney Mark Duncan.

Dearman contends that Killen was a ringleader in the slayings of the young men.

“Think of the way movies are made,” said Dearman, who followed the case as a reporter “since the morning after the boys went missing,” and who was editor and publisher of the weekly Neshoba (Miss.) Democrat from 1996 to 2000. “You could say Killen was the producer and director of this show — he selected the murder site, he worked out all the details.”

But even as Killen's trial is set to begin, some point to what they have long insisted is proof that the deaths of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were engineered by a state agency.

Two people whose lives were changed by the murders — one a brother of a victim, the other an activist who befriended the three — have mixed emotions about how justice will be served, or achieved, by the trial.

Dave Dennis was Mississippi field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality and the co-organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's Freedom Summer, the voter registration project.

A fateful illness
Dennis’ memories of the days before Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman went missing include recollections of their zeal for their mission, and a fateful illness that may have saved his own life.

Goodman and Schwerner came south from New York City to be part of the registration project. The husky Schwerner, 24, had earlier aroused the ire of locals, who derisively called him “the goatee” and “Jew boy” for his work in spearheading a boycott of a white-owned business. June 20th was the first day for the rangy, athletic Goodman — all of 20 years old — as a civil rights worker.

And for the slender, earnest 21-year-old Chaney, who hailed from nearby Meridian, Miss., voter registration was a mission pursued up close and personal, from the crucible of the segregationist South.

“The kids who came down there, they really believed in democracy. They were ready to die for it,” Dennis said.

“What I remember is the day before, when they came through Jackson,” he said. “I talked to Schwerner and Chaney; we talked about strategy.

“I was supposed to go with them but I had a bad case of bronchitis.”

“We had traded cars for them to go to Oxford, Miss.,” Dennis said. “I borrowed Mickey Schwerner’s Volkswagen at the time, so they could use my car, a station wagon. I said for them to keep the car and go on to Philadelphia.”

Forty-four days passed between June 21, when they disappeared, and Aug. 4, when their bodies were discovered.

‘My brother was invincible’
For Benjamin Chaney, the memories of summer 1964 are of an older brother he would never see again. “I remember that the people from the office told my mother that my brother didn't report in from Philadelphia,” said Chaney, who lived in Meridian, Miss.

“They were concerned,” he said. “The only thing going through my mind is that I believed my brother was going to pop up at any time. I thought my brother was invincible. Nothing was going to happen to him.”

Social justice through nonviolent activism became the younger Chaney's life as well; he would go on to direct the Community Commission on Civil Rights, a Manhattan-based watchdog organization.

“I was going to do what he was doing,” he said, “so that no other family would go through what my family was going through.”

‘A simple whitewash’
But for Ben Chaney, the Killen trial will rest no ghosts. “There won't be closure,” he said.

“This is not an attempt at real justice; what's taking place now is a simple whitewash,” he said. “If there was any interest on the part of the state of Mississippi to bring these people to justice, then all the people still alive and involved in this would have been brought to the grand jury.”

“What people in Mississippi are doing is a fraud,” Chaney said. “They went after one individual, the most unrepentant individual. Yet the people involved in the cover-up have not been brought to trial. So no, this is not closure. It's more like the Civil War is being fought again.”

Chaney laid ultimate blame for the murders at the feet of an arm of the state government in power at the time.

“It was the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission,” he said of the agency created by the Legislature in 1957 for the purpose of preserving the autonomy of the state against the “encroachment” of the federal government.

Chaney said politicians, from the governor on down, "created an atmosphere where the state engaged in a cover-up. There was someone else pulling the strings.”

Agents of the commission spied on civil rights workers, harassed voter registration workers and developed watch lists of those thought to support civil rights.

“They had so-called investigators and people who went out into the field and sabotaged anything they could that didn't fit the party line,” Dearman said.

‘This was a conspiracy’
“We have all the evidence showing law enforcement officers involved," Dennis said. "The people who did this were much more widespread. Killen wasn't responsible for churches being bombed, people being killed.”

“If the country looks on this [trial] as bringing closure, then the country never understood what this conspiracy was about,” he said. “This was a conspiracy on the part of the state of Mississippi and its elected officials to deter African Americans from their constitutional right to vote.”

Dearman says the state political apparatus also was largely to blame for the years-long delay in prosecuting Killen. “Local grass-roots politicians, including the judges and the prosecutors and county officials, are all elected and don’t care where the vote comes from, the rednecks or families of the guilty parties,” he said.

“They didn't want to ruffle any feathers, and they just didn't do their duty,” he said.

For Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Killen trial “is very likely to be one of the last major cases from the civil rights era. The main famous unsolved cases of the civil rights case have been revisited.”

But there are other cases, other persons unknown and unsung.

“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of cases that will never be known,” Potok said. “They were people who seemed so unimportant back then, they were never written up. They were not missed by people outside their own families.”

A Miss. native remembers
Penny Weaver, the law center's community affairs director, remembers firsthand the Freedom Summer era, but from the comfortable remove of Greenville, some miles from Neshoba County.

“I was born and grew up in Mississippi, and that was the time of total segregation,” she said. “Even though my community was 50 percent black, there was no mingling of the races, except for housekeepers and that sort of thing.”

Weaver's father was a doctor, but she discovered racial distinctions even there. “The offices had separate entrances and waiting rooms,” she said. 

“Klan brutality in Mississippi was horrendous, and it peaked in Neshoba County," she said. "At the time it seemed far away; it could have been in another state. It was far removed from what was happening in my community.”

“There just was not a lot of civil rights action going on. It was probably not until the late ’60s or early ’70s that there was integration in my community,” she said.

For these activists, there’s a timely resonance to the Killen trial and the possible resolution of other cold cases from the civil rights era.

On April 27, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush asked law enforcement officials to re-examine the March 1964 race-riot slaying of Johnnie Mae Chappell, a case in which charges against three white men were eventually dropped.

The case of the death of Emmett Till, murdered in Money, Miss., in 1955, also has been reopened. In May, a trial transcript was discovered, a document thought to possibly offer information on living suspects, despite the deaths of the two men acquitted in the case, both of whom later confessed to the crime.

On June 1, federal investigators exhumed Till’s body at a suburban Chicago cemetery to “see if any further evidence can be looked at to help Mississippi officials bring additional charges, if warranted,” an FBI official said.

Justice delayed
The potential for Killen's conviction may be greater now. Three of those convicted in 1967 are expected to testify for the prosecution.

“They got worried,” Dearman said. “I suppose this case is eating at some of them. I don’t think there's anyone involved in this case who wouldn’t have undone the thing.”

Dennis plans to attend the trial, less out of personal satisfaction than to keep his promise to the families of the three men murdered in 1964. “I promised the families that I would go in,” he said. “For a few days.”

For Weaver and the others, the trial will determine whether justice delayed need be justice denied.

“If they do prove that Killen had a connection, at least there’s another somebody brought to justice,” Weaver said. “It's always better to have some justice. Even it comes 41 years late.”