Fifty years ago tonight, three American civil rights workers with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were murdered in Neshoba County. They were, of course, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. They had just left the Philadelphia, Mississippi city limits when they were pulled over by a Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff. He arrested Chaney for driving 65 in a 35 zone and took the other two into custody for “investigation.” I have little doubt that there was no reason to pull over the car other than the fact that a young black man was driving. Regardless, it was all part of a conspiracy.
The three young men were held in jail until 10:00 that night. As they made their way out of town, they were followed by the very same Deputy Sheriff who originally pulled them over: Cecil Price. At 10:25, he pulled them over just before they were about to cross the county line. He had them get into his squad car and drove them to a deserted area where he handed them over to a group of fellow Klanmen who beat Chaney, I guess because he was black. Eventually, they murdered all three of the young men with gunshots. Ultimately, fifteen men were tried (seven were convicted) for the crime, but the conspiracy was undoubtedly far larger.
But lest you think this just a story about some southern bigots, FBI Director J Edgar Hoover wasn’t interested in the case at all. He hated the civil rights movement. He thought it was just a front for the communists. As I recall, he was the one that got the myth going that Martin Luther King was a communist. President Johnson had to threaten Hoover to get him to do anything. And rather quickly, other KKK victims were found. According to Wikipedia, “Navy divers and FBI agents discovered the bodies of Henry Hezekiah Dee, Charles Eddie Moore, 14-year old Herbert Oarsby, and five other unidentified Mississippi blacks, whose disappearances in the recent past had not attracted attention outside of their local communities.”
This is the very definition of terrorism. But those who were convicted for the crimes got tiny sentences. Deputy Sheriff Price got the maximum: six years but served only four and half. The mastermind of the crime was Edgar Ray Killen, a Southern Baptist minister. His case ended in a hung jury because one of the jurors refused to convict a minister. So he stayed free until 2005, when at the age of 80 years old, he was found guilty of three counts of manslaughter and given 20 years for each count. He’s still alive. He’ll turn 90 next January.
But if Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner wanted to make a difference, they succeeded far better than they ever could have hoped. The case did manage to shine a light not just on their deaths but on the lives (and often deaths) of the African Americans who lived in that part of the country. Things have improved immeasurably. But there are still people like Edgar Ray Killen who want to go back to the days when blacks just stayed out of the way and never voted. And sadly, many of those people are prominent and powerful members of the Republican Party—not bitter old men rotting in prison.