Mississippi Burning: How the Civil Rights Freedom Summer Became the Summer of Death

Mississippi Burning: How the Civil Rights Freedom Summer Became the Summer of Death

Patrick Lynch - July 10, 2017

The film Mississippi Burning is loosely based on the murders of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in Neshoba County, Mississippi in June 1964. The three men were abducted and murdered during the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the shocking crime resulted in one of the FBI’s biggest ever investigations. The men, who had been the target of Klan violence a week earlier, disappeared on June 21, 1964, after working to register black voters. After a massive search which garnered national attention, their bodies were found 44 days later. Only one man was ever convicted of the murders, and at the time of writing, it is a cold case.

A Toxic Environment

June 1964 was the start of Freedom Summer, a three-month initiative to register black voters in the South. The Ku Klux Klan was intent on removing the ‘threat’ of freedom activists and was prepared to resort to murder if necessary as it had done in the past. The Klan in Mississippi were especially keen to ‘deal with’ Michael Schwerner, a 24-year old from New York who was the first civil rights activist based outside the state’s capital, Jackson. Schwerner was hated by the Klan; mainly because he organized a black boycott of businesses owned by whites. He was also one of the most aggressive activists in terms of getting black people in Meridian to vote.

Sam Bowers was the Imperial Wizard of the Klan’s White Knights in Mississippi and in May 1964, he sent word to his fellow KKK members that it was time to initiate ‘Plan 4′; the plot to kill Schwerner. The Klan tried to kill the activist on June 16, 1964, when they arrived at Mount Zion Church in Longdale and expected Schwerner to be present. However, when 30 men arrived with shotguns and rifles, they were angry to discover that their prey was not amongst the 10 people leaving the church. They started to beat the black people that emerged from the church and set the building on fire.

Mississippi Burning: How the Civil Rights Freedom Summer Became the Summer of Death
The burned out car. NY Daily News

The Fateful Arrest

Schwerner and James Chaney were in Oxford, Ohio when they heard about the beatings and the fire. Andrew Goodman was at the same recruitment program, so he joined the other two activists, and the trio made their way to Meridian. They stayed there overnight and journeyed to Longdale the following day to investigate the ruins of the church.

Longdale in Neshoba County was a notoriously dangerous place for Civil Rights activists as Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price were both Klan members. While it was not widely known outside their circle that both men were in the Klan, they both earned reputations for being violent towards black citizens.

Meanwhile, Schwerner and the others were warned that a group of white men were after them, so they decided to travel to Meridian via Highway 16 to avoid an ambush. Unfortunately, Price was driving there at that time, and when the car passed, he saw Chaney, the only black member of the group, at the wheel because the other two were crouched down. Price pulled the vehicle over, allegedly for speeding, and then arrested them for involvement in the church burning. The three activists were now in the lion’s den and were ripe for the slaughter.

Mississippi Burning: How the Civil Rights Freedom Summer Became the Summer of Death
Police dig up the bodies of the three missing men at Old Jolly Farm. Pinterest

Disappearance & Death

Before setting off for the church, Schwerner told the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) office in Meridian that he would call at 4 pm. He said that if he didn’t call by 4.30pm, they needed to start making some calls to search for the group. When the deadline passed, workers in the Meridian office started to worry, and at 4.45pm, they contacted the Jackson office to tell them the three men had not returned. They called the jail at 5:20 pm to ask if the men had been arrested, but the jailer lied and said there was no one there.

At around 10 pm, Price agreed to release the group but followed them in his car. While the activists were in prison, Edgar Ray Allen, a prominent local Klan member, formed a mob to murder the trio after being told about the arrest by Price. Along with two other cars, Price followed the group along Highway 19 towards Meridian. While one of the cars had carburetor problems, Price had no such problems and caught the group’s vehicle on Highway 492 as it turned west to Union, Mississippi.

He escorted the trio into his car and led them to the lonely intersection of County Roads 515 and 284. It is not known precisely what transpired although later physical evidence suggests that Chaney was badly beaten. The events of the night were revealed by FBI informants James Jordan and Doyle Barnette, both of whom were present at the murders. According to Jordan, Wayne Roberts, a former Marine who suffered the indignity of a dishonorable discharge, killed all three men with shots at point blank range. He supposedly shot Schwerner first, then Goodman and finally, Chaney. Barnette claims that Jordon shot Chaney twice.

The mob took the three bodies to a dam site at the Old Jolly Farm owned by Olen Burrage who reportedly said that he had a dam that would ‘hold a hundred of them’ at a Klan meeting. The bodies were placed together and covered with dirt by a machine. Price returned to his duties and met Sheriff Rainey at approximately 12:30 am. Given the close relationship between the two men, it is almost certain that Price told Rainey everything in detail.

Back at the COFO office in Meridian, the staff had reached panic stations. A call was placed to John Doar of the Justice Department in Mississippi at 12:30 am. The previous week, he had warned the activists that no federal police force could protect them and he feared the worst. By 6 am, Doar had spoken with the FBI about investigating a violation of federal law. The following morning, FBI agent John Proctor, who was based in Meridian, was told about the disappearance and within hours, he was interviewing locals, leaders of the community and Price and Rainey. After the interview with Price, the Deputy offered Proctor a drink and pulled a bottle of illegal liquor of out of the trunk of his car. He was confident that the crime would never be solved; he was partly correct.

Mississippi Burning: How the Civil Rights Freedom Summer Became the Summer of Death
Price (on left) and Rainey (right) wait for their arraignment. All Day

An Investigation With Limited Success

By June 24, there were an extra 10 FBI agents on the case, and they received a tip about a smoldering car in Neshoba County. It turned out to be the CORE station wagon that the three men were driving at the time of their disappearance. The investigators held out a slim hope that they were still alive as no remains were found; the burning car also gave the case its famous name MIBURN or Mississippi Burning.

The federal military joined the case on June 25, and a few days later, J. Edgar Hoover announced that the FBI would open its first office in Mississippi. The seriousness of the case was underlined by the fact it was led by the FBI’s Lead Case Inspector, Joseph Sullivan. He found it incredibly difficult to get information from residents of Neshoba County; mainly because so many of them were ‘in’ on the plot or sympathized with the killers. After a financial reward was offered, a tip came forward on the location of the bodies. Proctor was at Old Jolly Farm on August 4, 1964, when the bodies were dug up. Sullivan invited Price to the site to gauge his reaction, but Proctor noted that Price took a shovel and started digging; giving the impression that nothing about the case fazed him.

Trial & Little Punishment

James Jordan turned informer to avoid a lengthy prison term, and on December 4, 1964, the Justice Department authorized the arrest of 19 men for the crime of conspiring to deprive the three victims of their civil rights under color of state law. Just six days later, a U.S. Commissioner dismissed the charges; claiming they were based on hearsay. Government attorneys then secured indictments against the 19 men, but on February 24, 1965, Federal Judge William Harold Cox dismissed 17 of the indictments. He was a noted segregationist and said the men did not act under the color of state law. Only the indictments against Rainey and Price remained.

The U.S. Supreme Court overruled Cox in March 1966, so the other 17 men were indicted once again. After a long drawn out process, the trial of the United States against Price et al. began in Meridian on October 7, 1967, with Cox as the judge. To say this was bad news for the prosecution was an understatement; Cox once referred to a group of black people who testified in a voting rights case as ‘chimpanzees.’ The all-white jury, which included at least one former Klan member, was also a bad sign.

The jury reached its verdict on October 20; 7 men were convicted including Price and Bowers. Cox handed out his sentences on December 29; Bowers and Roberts received 10 years apiece, Price and Posey got 6 and the others got 4 years. After a hiatus lasting decades, Edgar Ray Killen was charged with murder in connection with the triple homicide in January 2005. He was found guilty of three counts of manslaughter and received three 20-year sentences. The case was officially closed by Mississippi officials in June 2016. Although several men served a few years in prison, it is obvious that justice was not served in this terrible crime; nor will it ever be.