One of the most harrowing events to occur during the civil rights movement took place on this day in 1964. Three activists connected with the CORE organization were arrested and later killed in what has been alleged as a planned attack by the Ku Klux Klan.
The brave young activists from the Congress of Racial Equality, the SNCC and other related civil rights groups launched the Freedom Summer campaign, also known as the Mississippi Summer Project. The campaign was made up of mostly Black Mississippi natives and over 1,000 mostly white volunteers from around the United States. The activists faced abuse and death threats from locals and the Ku Klux Klan alike.
James Chaney, a Black Mississippi man who worked with CORE, along with Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, white Jewish men from New York, were arrested June 21, 1964 by Neshoba County deputy Sheriff and KKK member Cecil Price. The men were investigating a recent church burning that was reportedly carried out by the KKK when Price locked them up on trumped-up charges.
Schwerner was already a target of the KKK and they reportedly concocted a plan to murder him in May of that year known as “Plan 4.” The group mistakenly thought Schwerner would be in attendance at the local Mount Zion Church and torched the structure on June 16. When Schwerner heard of the acts while away in Ohio, he vowed to look into the matter.
After being held all day, the men were released but were ambushed by KKK members. Schwerner and Goodman were shot point-blank. Chaney was beaten and tortured before he was eventually shot to death. Their bodies weren’t found until that August.
The FBI arrested 18 men in October of that year, after state prosecutors refused to try the case based on lack of evidence. Price was among those arrested. In 1967, seven men were convicted of federal conspiracy charges but none of them faced trial for murder. No one in the group served more than six years.
In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of three counts of manslaughter. On June 20, 2016, after three investigations by the Department of Justice over 50 years, the state announced that it was closing the case, ending the chapter on one of the movement’s most tragic events.
In a statement, the Department of Justice said:
Mississippi Attorney General Hood has determined that despite one of the most intensely investigated and documented underlying investigations of any racially-motivated murder during the 1960s, followed by the exhaustive efforts of more recent reinvestigations, the passage of time has simply rendered additional prosecutions impossible. While legal and factual impediments sometimes prevent us from bringing cases we wish that we could, the Civil Rights Division remains dedicated to pursuing racially-motivated crimes wherever the facts allow.
“Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner gave their lives while struggling to advance the cause of civil rights for all. Though the reinvestigation into their heinous deaths has formally closed, we must all honor their legacy by forging ahead and continuing the fight to ensure that the founding promise of America is true for all of its inhabitants.”
President Barack Obama awarded Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.