Three Illinois high school students who made the 1964 civil rights murders here a history project will be in Philadelphia Sunday as part of a community observance.
The students spent more than a year researching and producing a documentary on the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County.
For their efforts the group took first prize in a statewide history contest, but they aren’t stopping there.
One Mississippi congressman is working with the three teenagers and their teacher calling on the federal government to reopen the case and will present a resolution in Congress on June 21 to that effect.
On May 26 leaders in Neshoba County publicly called for justice. Two days later the Mississippi Attorney General asked the U.S. Justice Department for help.
This weekend the three students, Sara Siegel, Allison Nichols and Brittany Saltiel, along with teacher Barry Bradford will be in Philadelphia to take part in the 40th anniversary commemoration of the murders of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.
To create their documentary, the girls interviewed numerous people involved in the case including reporters, former FBI agents, family members of the victims and even potential witnesses in the case.
The result was a 10-minute documentary, but the outcome is still uncertain as the 40th anniversary draws near and the possibility of the federal government reopening the case seems likely.
While a trip to Mississippi for a civil rights commemoration might not be a normal summer excursion for a group of teenagers, Siegel said she and the others wouldn’t miss the event.
She said what started out as a simple research project and a chance to compete in the annual Illinois History Fair had become an obsession with the small group.
“All of our friends know when they see us talking about Mississippi or civil rights they can’t get a word in,” Siegel said. “We’re off in another world when we’re talking about the case.”
Siegel, a junior at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., just outside of Chicago, said when they first decided to tackle the subject of the 1964 killings shortly after finishing their sophomore year, the three girls knew very little about Mississippi or the civil rights movement.
“We came into this basically knowing absolutely nothing to knowing more than I ever thought I would about Mississippi,” Siegel said.
“In a lot of ways I was pretty ignorant about the civil rights movement in general. In school you only read about Martin Luther King and his march on Washington. After this past year I feel like I’m able to paint a clearer picture.”
Bradford, who has helped his students throughout their year of research, said he had fallen in love with the state of Mississippi and its people, recognizing the stigma they face as a result of the civil rights era.
He said it was important that the students be concise in their research and not assume anything from impressions they may receive from television or other sources.
“I work with my students telling them not to make assumptions about the culture in Mississippi or judgments,” Bradford said, adding that ultimately he felt reopening the case would help the state’s image in the long run.
Since the start, Bradford said he has seen the teenagers develop a personal connection to the unsolved case.
“I think they realized that these workers were only a few years older than they were,” he said. “I think they were outraged to the fact that no justice had ever taken place in the case.”
After reading “every book they could get their hands on,” over the summer of 2003 in preparation for the project, the group eventually raised money to travel to New York and meet with surviving family members of the victims.
After that they told Bradford they wanted to do more than just document the event. “When they came back from New York they had a burning passion to see justice done in this case,” Bradford said. “Since then there was no stopping them.”
Soon they began researching other civil rights cases and how they have been reopened.
They’ve been in close contact with a number of government officials like U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi who commended the girls for their diligence in the case.
“They have been pursuing this and other issues for a long time now,” Thompson said. “They are to be complimented for their leadership at such a young age.”
Thompson and Lewis, spurred on by a resolution written by Bradford and the group, plan to present a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday, June 21 that Thompson’s office said was fashioned after the same bill passed in the Emmett Till case.
They hope to gain the support of other Mississippi delegates in getting the bill passed.
Thompson just last Thursday wrote letters to both U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, requesting that they reopen and reexamine all evidence in the case.
Siegel said she and her two classmates have been overwhelmed with the response and support they have received in their endeavors and don’t plan on halting their work.
“Everyone we’ve dealt with has been really, really nice,” she said. “They are very supportive of everything we’re doing. It actually gives you even more motivation to get work done.”
They are looking forward to visiting the place they have spent most of the last year researching, but hope their “history” project will be out of date soon, and justice is brought in the case.
“We’re very optimistic good things are going to happen,” she concluded.