I have been writing about the continued problem of racism and hatred in this country, as well as in others lately. Fifty years ago, three young men working to register blacks to vote as part of the Freedom Summer in Mississippi were brutally murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The three men were idealists who would all die because they fought for the right of Blacks to vote harassment and intimidation.
Twenty year old Andrew Goodman from New York City, was a progressive activist and Anthropology student at Queens College. Twenty-four year old Mickey Schwerner was a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. Both Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish. Twenty-one year old James Chaney was from Meridian Mississippi and was a volunteer with CORE, the Congress of Racial Equity working on voter registration and education with local churches.
The Ruins of Mount Zion Church
On June 21st 1964 the three men were investigating the burning of Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale. They had been working with the church to assist in registering blacks to vote. In the wake of their visit to the town and to the church, the local Klan, which included many men of influence, including those in law enforcement sought to lure CORE workers into the town to make an example of them. They did this by upping the ante and instigated a campaign to harass, attack and brutalize the black citizens and church members. They then burned the church to the ground.
The three went to the site on June 20th and were arrested for an alleged traffic violation. They were then jailed and released later in the evening without being allowed to make any phone calls. On the way back to Meridian, two carloads of Klan members forced them over, abducted them and killed them. The bodies were buried at the base of a dam and not discovered for 44 days.
Cecil Price, a deputy Sheriff involved in the arrest was one of the murderers. He was one of the men later convicted of their murder. After the killing he told his helpers:
“Well, boys, you’ve done a good job. You’ve struck a blow for the white man. Mississippi can be proud of you. You’ve let those agitating outsiders know where this state stands. Go home now and forget it. But before you go, I’m looking each one of you in the eye and telling you this: “The first man who talks is dead! If anybody who knows anything about this ever opens his mouth to any outsider about it, then the rest of us are going to kill him just as dead as we killed those three sonofbitches (sic) tonight. Does everybody understand what I’m saying. The man who talks is dead, dead, dead!”
The disappearance of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman brought national attention and a major investigation to the town. Eventually seven men, including deputy Price were convicted of the murders. The murders and the investigation became the subject of the movie Mississippi Burning.
In 1965 Norman Rockwell, well known for his portraits of American life and the Civil Rights movement painted “Southern Justice” which is sometimes known as “Murder in Mississippi” This was not long after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which has been under attack in many southern states over the past decade and had a key provision gutted by the Supreme Court last year.
50 years ago the murders of these three young men brought national attention to the pervasive racism and discrimination in the country. Until this incident most of the murders, lynching’s and burnings of homes, businesses, and even churches had been covered up by the media and law enforcement. Frankly, a black life wasn’t worth investigating or the air time.
I do hope and pray that we never go back to those days, but as laws are passed to limit voting rights in various states I wonder if the clock is being turned back. I don’t think that it will in the long run these efforts to disenfranchise blacks, other minorities, students and the working poor will be successful, but we can never assume that. Freedom always hangs in the balance and it can be lost when we do nothing. The Klan is still active, and sadly its hatred for Blacks, immigrants, Jews, Moslems, Catholics, and Gays, or for that matter anyone who stands against them has spread to others not traditionally affiliated with the Klan.
Some might say that it has been fifty-years, that things have changed, so why bother bringing up the past? I’ll tell you why, because freedom is always under siege, and the sacrifice of so many, including these three young men, for those rights should never be forgotten.
In memory of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner and others of the Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights movement who died or suffered to peacefully bring about change to our society.