Historical context of 1964 civil rights murders
Wednesday, April 28, 2004 1:00 PM
An observance commemorating the 40th anniversary of the civil rights murders is planned June 20 in Philadelphia. Leading up to that observance the Democrat will reprint selected articles from our coverage in 1964 fitting with the observance theme: Recognition, resolution, redemption: Uniting for justice.
The following provides historical context for the first installment that appeared in the print edition on April 28, 2004.
— Jim Prince
On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered in Neshoba County. The trio had come here to investigate the burning of the Mt. Zion Methodist Church in the Longdale community off of Mississippi 16 east.
The night the church was burned three parishioners were beaten, some severely. The murders of Michael Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20, were part of a plot hatched by the Lauderdale County unit of the Ku Klux Klan and carried out by members of the Neshoba County unit.
The civil rights workers were part of a broader national movement that hoped to begin a voter registration drive in this area, part of the Mississippi Summer Project, what became known as Freedom Summer.
A coalition of civil rights organizations known as COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) conceived of a project in the state with massive numbers of student volunteers who would converge on the state to register black voters and to conduct “freedom schools” which would offer curriculum of black history and arts to children throughout the state.
Chaney, a plasterer, had grown up in Meridian, in nearby Lauderdale County, and even as a young student had been interested in civil rights work. Schwerner, a Jewish New Yorker, came south to Meridian to set up the COFO office because he believed he could help prevent the spread of hate that had resulted in the Holocaust, an event that had taken the lives of some of his family.
Chaney volunteered at the Meridian office, and the two young men began to make visits to Neshoba County to find residents there to sponsor voter registration drives and freedom schools. They made contact with members of Mt. Zion Methodist Church and Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church, as well as other individuals. They made plans for a COFO project in the area.
Tensions were mounting that summer as some of Mississippi's segregationist newspapers propagated the idea of a “pending invasion” of civil rights workers. The state was a powder keg, as the Ku Klux Klan increasingly made its presence known and fears were heightened among both blacks and whites. In April 1964 the Klan burned about a dozen crosses in Neshoba County. The Neshoba Democrat spoke against the cross burnings and the coercion and intimidation employed by the Klan.
The Ku Klux Klan and other groups had become more active in response to increasing civil rights activity, especially since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation. In addition to the Klan’s resistance, the state of Mississippi was continuing to monitor activists through the Sovereignty Commission, which worked in conjunction with the White Citizens Council, to use economic intimidation and threats to attempt to keep blacks in subservient positions.
Undertaking such struggles for equality, exemplified by the trio was dangerous and courageous work. The work was so bold that the Klan vowed to stop it, even putting Schwerner on a hit list and giving him a code name “Goatee.”
In mid-June, Chaney and Schwerner traveled to Oxford, Ohio, to participate in the Freedom Summer volunteers training session being held there. While they were away, on June 16, Klansman assaulted members of the Mt. Zion church, looking for Chaney and Schwerner. Later in the evening, they burned the church to the ground. Having been alerted of the attack, Chaney and Schwerner, joined by new volunteer Goodman immediately drove south to investigate and offer solace to the church members.
On Sunday afternoon, June 21, Father’s Day, the three young men drove to Philadelphia from Meridian and visited members of Mt. Zion. On the way back through town they were pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy. Chaney was charged with speeding and Schwerner and Goodman were held on suspicion of burning the Mt. Zion church.