November 6, 1939 – Michael Schwerner:
Sometimes, it all becomes too much, and you must act. Here is one story:
Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were murdered by members of the Klu Klux Klan because of their Civil Rights activism. All three were members of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). Their deaths helped galvanize the Civil Rights Movement and gain support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They gave their lives in the pursuit of social justice.
In 1961, Schwerner enrolled in a master’s program at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, but he dropped out and took a job as a social worker at a housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was there that he became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Schwerner joined the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). CORE was founded in 1942; its stated mission is: “to bring about equality for all people regardless of race, creed, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion or ethnic background.”
After the Birmingham riots in 1963, Schwerner moved to the South to work for CORE there. He moved to Meridian, Mississippi with his wife in January 1964, to help at the CORE office there. Schwerner and Rita Schwerner were among a group of three hundred students who went to Mississippi to help with the Voting Rights campaign. They were 22 and 24-years-old.
They assisted African-American citizens with registering to vote and encouraged social activism. Before long, Schwerner had attracted the attention of the White Nationalists. He was being watched by the KKK and the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a state agency which operated from 1956 to 1977. Their objective of was to “… protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states from encroachment thereon by the Federal Government”. It coordinated activities to portray racial segregation in a positive light.
During its existence, the commission profiled more than 87,000 citizens suspected of being associated with the Civil Rights Movement. It investigated the work, credit histories and personal relationships of those it investigated. It collaborated with local white officials of government, police, and business to pressure African-Americans to give up activism, causing them to be fired, evicted from their housing, or their businesses boycotted.
The commission gave Schwerner the code name “Goatee”. Sam Bowers, a member of the commission and a local Klan wizard gave the orders for for Schwerner to be killed.
Chaney was a CORE member who worked closely with Schwerner. As part of the local African-American community, Chaney helped convince black churches to allow CORE to use their buildings for training.
In June 1963, the Schwerners and Chaney traveled to Ohio for a special training session to prepare volunteers for the summer’s Civil Rights campaign, ”Freedom Summer”. They planned on bringing hundreds of volunteers to Mississippi to register African-American voters. While at the training program, Schwerner and Chaney learned that the Mount Zion United Methodist church, a rural congregation in the ironically named Philadelphia, Mississippi, had been firebombed and the worshippers had been attacked by the KKK. The pair, joined by volunteer Andrew Goodman, returned to Mississippi to investigate the incident.
The three men were pulled over by the police, reportedly for speeding. They were taken to a jail in Neshoba County and held there for several hours before they were finally allowed to pay a fine and leave. Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman got into their vehicle and set off for Meridian, but they never made it.
Their disappearance became a national news story. Race played a big part in how much media coverage their case received. Several African-American Civil Rights activists had already disappeared or been killed in Mississippi, but Schwerner and Goodman were two young white men from the North, a fact that captured the country’s attention. Shortly after the men vanished, the FBI sent agents to Mississippi to work on the case. The fates of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were finally revealed 44 days after their disappearance: their bodies were found after a tip lead the FBI to an earthen dam near charming, scenic Philadelphia, where the trio had been buried.
Local and state law enforcement officials did little to investigate the murders. Because the killings were not federal crimes, the federal government chose to pursue a civil rights case against those involved in the abduction and murders of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman.
In 1965, 18 men, including several members of local law enforcement, were charged with violating the activists’ civil rights. Once these men were brought to trial, the truth of what really happened on that summer night in 1964: Klan members were told that the three young men were in the county jail. Two cars filled with Klan members waited for them to leave and then they caught up with Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman on a country road. Their car was pulled over and all three were abducted, driven to another location. The KKK shot each of them at close range. They also beat Chaney.
The disappearance of the three men was initially investigated as a missing persons case. Their burnt-out car was found near a swamp three days after their disappearance. An extensive search of the area was conducted by the FBI, local and state authorities, and four hundred United States Navy sailors. During the investigation it emerged that members of the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office and the Philadelphia Police Department were involved in the incident.
The FBI file was named Mississippi Burning, which is also the title of a 1988 film based on the events. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was convinced that the Civil Rights Movement was under Communist influence. President Lyndon Johnson had to force Hoover to investigate. During the investigation, searchers discovered the bodies of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore in the area. They were college students who had disappeared in May 1964; they were found to have been kidnapped, beaten and killed by a white mob. The FBI also discovered the body 14-year-old Herbert Oarsby, and four unidentified Mississippi blacks, whose disappearances had not received national attention.
Only 10 men were charged with the murders, and seven men were convicted in the case. Edgar Ray Killen, was set free because a member of the jury refused to convict a Baptist preacher. Killen didn’t escape justice forever; the film Mississippi Burning stirred up new interest in the killings. A reporter uncovered new information in the case, which led to Killen being charged again. It was discovered that he had been the organizer, and in 2005, 80-year-old Killen was found guilty on three counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison. He died there 11 months ago, six days before his 93rd birthday.
The others were: Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey, who became emboldened by his newly found popularity in Mississippi after the killings; Bernard Akin a member of the KKK; Other N. Burkes, a police officer known for his cruelty toward black people; Olen L. Burrage who owned the land where the three men were found buried. Burrage: “I got a dam big enough to hold a hundred of them.”
Oliver Warren, Frank J. Herndon and James T. Harris were the Klan members who kept tabs on Schwerner’s every move. Herman Tucker was given the assignment of getting rid of the station wagon driven by the workers.
On a Sunday in 1964, Bowers who told a gathering of 300 Mississippi Klansmen:
“… a nigger-communist invasion is coming to Mississippi. There must be a secondary group of our members, standing back from the main area of conflict, armed and ready to move. It must be extremely swift, extremely violent.”
Bowers was finally apprehended on December 1964.
In 1967, Neshoba deputy sheriff Cecil Price was convicted of killing all three men, yet, he was given only six years in prison. He died in 2001 at 63-years-old, taken by acute racism.
In 2014, Schwerner was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Americas first black president.
After her husband’s death, Rita Schwerner stayed in Mississippi and continued her Civil Rights work. She was a part of the challenge to the all-white Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. She attended Rutgers School of Law. Out of 150 students in the graduating class of 1968, Schwerner was one of five women. She later worked for the ACLU and is now an attorney in Washington State, specializing in providing indigent defendants access to legal assistance.
The “Mississippi Burning” case was officially closed by the FBI in 2016.
Tiny footnote: On August 3, 1980, Ronald Reagan gave his first post-convention speech at the Neshoba County Fair after being officially chosen as the Republican nominee for POTUS. He told the crowd:
“I believe in states’ rights … I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment. I promise to restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them.”