by Diana Castro-Vazquez
Most people know that the civil rights movement was a movement that fought to abolish institutional racial segregation and discrimination, but many may not know the story of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwermer and Andrew Goodman. The workers were found dead on August 4, 1964, almost two months after they disappeared, simply because they were affiliated with a group helping register black voters in Meridian, Miss.. Public outcry over the disappearance of these civil rights workers on June 16, 1964 was one of the catalysts that finally led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
At the beginning of 1964, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) field secretaries Mickey and Rita Schwerner arrived in Meridian. They frequently met supporters of the Freedom Movement in Mt. Zion Church. The Freedom Movement’s goal was to register black people to vote. In 1964, 45 percent of the population of Mississippi was black, but less than 5 percent of them were registered to vote. The community agreed to host a
Freedom School for the upcoming Freedom Summer Project.
On the evening of June 16, while CORE members were in Ohio, meeting volunteers for the Summer Project, the Ku Klux Klan attacked Mt. Zion Church in Meridian, Miss., beating members of the congregation and burning down the building.
On June 22, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were driving to Neshoba County to meet up with local black people to talk about the church burning, when they were pulled over by police. A known member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan- Sheriff deputy Cecil Price- pulled them over for “speeding.” The car that the three men were in was well-known to the community as a CORE vehicle. Instead of giving them a ticket, Price decided to arrest them and take them to a jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi and deny them their phone call.
Price then contacted his KKK associates and Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, who agreed to release the three men and later ambush them while they were on their way back to Meridian.
Once the CORE members realized that the three men missed their check-in time, they gathered a search party. Louise Hermey, a Summer Project volunteer, called jails and hospitals looking for the missing men. The Neshoba County jail denied any involvement and claimed not to know anything about the missing men, despite the fact that at the moment of the call, the three men were still in custody. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was informed that the men were being held in jail and they notified the FBI, who did nothing.
At 10:30 that night, Price let the three men go and told them “to get out of town.” While they were on the way back to Meridian, they got pulled over again by Price, who then handed them over to the Klan. The Klan proceeded to take James Chaney (the only black man out of the three) and beat him repeatedly; all three were shot to death. The next morning, they were buried on the property of wealthy landowner Olen Burrage; their car was set on fire and driven into Bogue Chitto swamp.
The next day, the disappearance of the men became front-page news, even appearing in The New York Times, and their car was found. The FBI and the military formed search teams and President Johnson met the parents of Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. He told them that everything possible was being done. The mother of James Chaney was not invited to the White House with the other parents.
While the search parties were going on, conspiracies started blooming. Mississippi claimed it was all a hoax; the Mississippi governor told reporters, “those boys are in Cuba,” and a Communist ploy claimed they were in Mexico.
During this time, the first FBI office in Mississippi opened and the number of agents increased from 15 to 150. Despite this, FBI director Hoover stated that the FBI would give no protection to civil rights workers.
In Neshoba county, a paid informant tipped off the FBI, and the bodies were recovered on August 4, almost two months after they disappeared. The autopsies of the men were never released to the public. Leaks reported that they were only shot, not tortured or mutilated, but the Medical Committee for Human Rights suspected a cover-up, so they asked a well-respected New York pathologist, Dr. David Spain, to inspect the bodies. He discovered horrible torture done to James Chaney, and stated that in his 25 years as a pathologist and medical examiner, he had never seen bones so shattered, except in a high-speed accident or plane crash.
Michael Schwerner’s parents asked that his body be buried next to James Chaney, but it was not allowed because it violated the rigid code of Mississippi, where segregation extended beyond life – whites and blacks could not even be laid to rest in the same cemetery.
Now, in 2022, we might think that segregation was something that happened so long ago, but the murders of these three innocent men, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, happened 58 years ago. Most of our grandparents were alive back then, and for others, our parents were as well. Segregation is a part of our recent past and we have to acknowledge it.
At the eulogy for James Chaney, CORE leader Dave Dennis might have been speaking directly to us today when he said: “I want to talk about right now the living dead that we have right among our midst, not only in the state of Mississippi but throughout the nation. Those are the people who don’t care, [and] those who do care but don’t have the guts enough to stand up for it … . Your work is just beginning.”