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
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.