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

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.