Remembering the Martyrs of Freedom Summer 1964

FBI photo of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman.

Today marks a sad date in American history. On June 21st, 1964, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman (seen above in FBI photos), three Freedom Summer volunteers, were killed by a white mob in Mississippi.

As described here:

On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights workers—a 21-year-old black Mississippian, James Chaney, and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24—were murdered near Philadelphia, in Nashoba County, Mississippi. They had been working to register black voters in Mississippi during Freedom Summer and had gone to investigate the burning of a black church.

They were arrested by the police on trumped-up charges, imprisoned for several hours, and then released after dark into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, who beat and murdered them. It was later proven in court that a conspiracy existed between members of Neshoba County’s law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan to kill them.

Justice for these killings was slow in coming:

The FBI arrested 18 men in October 1964, but state prosecutors refused to try the case, claiming lack of evidence. The federal government then stepped in, and the FBI arrested 18 in connection with the killings. In 1967, seven men were convicted on federal conspiracy charges and given sentences of three to ten years, but none served more than six. No one was tried on the charge or murder.

The contemptible words of the presiding federal judge, William Cox, give an indication of Mississippi’s version of justice at the time: “They killed one ni—r, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved.” Another eight defendants were acquitted by their all-white juries, and another three ended in mistrials. One of those mistrials freed Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen—believed to be the ringleader—after the jury in his case was deadlocked by one member who said she couldn’t bear to convict a preacher.

On Jan. 7, 2005, four decades after the crime, Edgar Ray Killen, then 80, was charged with three counts of murder. He was accused of orchestrating the killings and assembling the mob that killed the three men. On June 21—the 41st anniversary of the murders—Killen was convicted on three counts of manslaughter, a lesser charge. He received the maximum sentence, 60 years in prison. The grand jury declined to call for the arrest of the seven other living members of the original group of 18 suspects arrested in 1967.

How have things changed in Mississippi since then? The LA Times gives an interesting and disturbing account of the way things are now:

Much has changed here since African Americans like Sylvia Campbell, now 74, were told they couldn’t vote unless they correctly answered how many bubbles were in a bar of soap.

But much is the same. For all the excitement about Barack Obama and his history-making run for president, there is anxiety, too, because the present is still a hostage to the past. Everything in this slow town of one-way streets and more than 80 churches is viewed through the lens of race. Obama’s success makes some people as anxious as it makes others proud.

“It’s just the impossibility of it,” Campbell said again and again of the presumed Democratic nominee. She had just come from a weeknight Bible study at her church, Mt. Zion United Methodist, which the Ku Klux Klan once burned down. “I know Mississippians. Barack Obama will never change the uneducated whites from the South. I don’t care what he does. If he made some of them millionaires, he’ll never change them.”

Obama’s victory in the primaries comes just as Philadelphia prepares to mark the 44th anniversary of the killings that put it reluctantly on the map. Racial tensions are not as violently overt as they were then; today the slights are subtle, from the glance averted on the street to the job application that is never considered. With five months of fierce presidential campaigning ahead — black against white — there is a sense that simmering racial tensions are about to boil again.

So, it seems that we haven’t made as much progress as we’d like, in almost 44 years. But we’re certainly better off than we were before those three young men lost their lives.

And so we give honor and thanks, now and always, to their sacrifice.

Thanks to Black Political Analysis blog for the link to the LA Times story.

> For a more positive view of the Obama candidacy in Mississippi, click here.

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