The investigation of the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers is over
In the search for the missing civil rights workers, bodies of other black men are found
By Frederick H. Lowe
Mississippi Attorney General James Hood this week closed the investigation into the deaths of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights workers, who were murdered 52 years ago in Neshoba County, Miss., by the Klu Klux Klan and the police.
The investigation is commonly referred to as the “Mississippi Burning” case, the title of both a book and a movie loosely based on the murders.
The deaths of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner occurred June 21, 1964, during Freedom Summer. They were buried in an earthen dam on Old Jolly Farm near Philadelphia, Miss., after being shot to death.
Their bodies, which were found 44 days later on August 4, 1964, sparked passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The 1963 Ford station wagon the men were riding in was burned and found in a swamp on June 23, 1964.
The investigation also exposed a contentious difference between President Lyndon Baines Johnson and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in investigating civil rights cases.
The case also documented the role white police officers played in killing civil rights workers who were registering blacks to vote.
While searching for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, FBI agents and others found the bodies of other African-American men and a boy murdered by the Klan. At the time, their disappearances were never investigated by police.
At a news conference in Jackson, Miss., on Monday, Hood said there are no more viable criminal charges in the “Mississippi Burning” case.
“The FBI, my office and other law enforcement agencies have spent decades chasing leads, searching for evidence and fighting for justice for the three young men who were senselessly murdered on June 21, 1964,” Hood said. “It has been a thorough and complete investigation. I am convinced that during the last 52 years, investigators have done everything possible under the law to find those responsible and hold them accountable; however, we have determined that there is no likelihood of any additional convictions. Absent any new information presented to the FBI or my office, this case will be closed.”
9 men successfully prosecuted for the murders
Nine men have been successfully prosecuted for the murders, the FBI wrote in a U.S. Department of Justice Report to Hood concerning the investigation of the murders.
Edgar Ray Killen, a Baptist minister and a Klan member, who was convicted of state manslaughter charges, is still alive and is serving a 60-year prison sentence. Killen, who was 8o years old when he entered Mississippi State Prison in Parchman, orchestrated the murders.
Registering blacks to vote
Chaney, 21, Goodman, 21, and Schwerner, 24, were working for the Congress of Federated Organizations, the most active civil rights group to register blacks to vote in Mississippi. They were riding in the station wagon with Mississippi plates registered to COFO.
Police stop the car and alert the Klan
Around 3 p.m. on June 21, 1964 near Meridian, Miss., Cecil Ray Price, a Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff and Klan member, stopped the car and arrested the three men. Price hated the COFO and the work they were doing.
Price contacted Killen, a member of the Philadelphia KKK. He contacted members of the Meridian Klan. He told them about the jailed civil rights workers.
At 10:30 p.m., Price released Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner and escorted them to their impounded station wagon. Klansmen were waiting for the men to be released.
Price, driving his squad car, was accompanied by two carloads of Klansmen near Philadelphia, Miss. The civil rights workers car was pulled over by Price and the three young men were ordered to get into the squad car’s backseat. They were driven to Rock Cut Road outside of Philadelphia, Miss., where they were murdered.
Their bodies were thrown into the station wagon and driven to Old Jolly Farm.
President Johnson had to use indirect threats of political reprisals to force Hoover to investigate the murders. Hoover believed civil rights workers were influenced by the Communist Party.
Bodies of other black men found
Navy divers and FBI agents discovered the bodies of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, both 19 years old. Dee was a college student and Moore was a sawmill worker. They were chained to a Jeep motor and train rails and dropped in the Mississippi River on July 12, 1964.
Their bodies were discovered during the search for Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman.
Federal searchers also discovered 14-year-old Herbert Oarsby, and five other unidentified Mississippi black men, whose disappearances had not attracted attention outside their local communities.