The three young men murdered here 55 ago years next week registering blacks to vote will be memorialized once again during an annual service Sunday at the rural church the Ku Klux Klan burned.

The annual service at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in the Longdale community off Mississippi 16 east of town is at 3 p.m.

The guest speaker will be David L. Beckley, president of historically black Rust College in Holly Springs. Founded in 1866, it is the second-oldest private college in the state and Rust was founded by blacks.

Beckley is the longest tenured senior college President in Mississippi. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree at Rust College and gained his M.Ed. and Ph.D. degrees in Higher Education Administration from the University of Mississippi.

The three civil rights workers, James Chaney, 21, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, were ambushed and murdered in Neshoba County on June 21, 1964, by the Ku Klux Klan after investigating the burning of Mt. Zion nearly a week earlier on June 16, 1964.

They were ambushed and later shot by the Ku Klux Klan on Father’s Day, June 21, 1964. The highly-fictionalized 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning” was about the murders.

The Klan believed the church was playing a central role in the black voter registration effort.

Several church members were beaten, some severely, as they left the church the night of the fire. The church has continued to hold a service annually since that summer.

In 1967, seven men were convicted in federal court of conspiring to violate the civil rights of the three murder victims.

In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, a part-time Baptist preacher and sawmill owner, was convicted in Neshoba County Circuit Court on three counts of manslaughter for his role in orchestrating the murders.

Killen received three 20-year consecutive sentences. He died January 11, 2018, in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. 

Jewel McDonald, a member of the Mt. Zion church, said the service means a lot because of the sacrifices the young men made.

McDonald, who was a senior in high school at the time of the murders, served on The Philadelphia Coalition, a multi-ethnic group of Neshoba countians who led a community-wide call for justice in May 2004 on the 40th anniversary.

This year the church is being placed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

“This is something very, very outstanding for Mt. Zion, because it’s just a little country church that’s been there for centuries,” McDonald said. “We have people from all over the world who have come to Mt. Zion and Philadelphia.” 

McDonald’s family members were there during the Klan attack in 1964. Said McDonald, “It means a great deal to me for us to have this award.”

McDonald has said she remembers the fear surrounding the murders. She has spoken many times on national television and in other media about hiding the few graduation gifts she received in their chicken house out of fear their own home might be burned.

The speaker Beckley has served as Chair of the Mississippi Association of Independent Colleges, President of the Mississippi Association of Colleges, member of NCAA Division III Presidents Council, Secretary of the Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare Board of Directors, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, the CREATE Foundation Board, Civil Rights Museum Commission, and Batesville Job Corp Community Advisory Board, among others.