On June 21, 1964, 3 civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by a Ku Klux Klan organized lynch mob during "Freedom Summer" as the activists fought to get black Americans registered to vote. (1)
41 years to the day after the murders on June 21, 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, one of the 18 men involved but likely the instigator, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison for his involvement in the murders. (2)
Killen, who got 41 years of additional freedom after organizing a heinous crime, died on January 11, 2018, less than a week before he would have turned 93. (2)
There are a lot of perpetrators in this case, to the point where I feel like half of this story is naming the 18 people who were involved. So before jumping into those terrible people, let's learn just a little bit about the 3 men who's lives were senselessly taken.
James Chaney was born in 1952 to parents Fannie Lee and Ben Chaney, Sr. He had a brother who was 9 years younger than him and 3 sisters named Barbara, Janice and Julia. He attended Catholic School, and received a suspension for wearing white paper badges that said NAACP. After high school, he started as an apprentice with his father. (3)
He participated in various non-violent demonstrations and joined the Congress of Racial Equality to help organize voter education classes. After his murder, his family had to leave the state because of the death threats. They moved to New York City with the help of the families of the other 2 murdered men. (3)
In 1988, Ben Chaney, his brother, established the James Earl Chaney Foundation to promote civil rights and social justice, and he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2014, along with Andrew and Michael. (3)
Andrew Goodman was the 2nd of 3 boys born to Robert and Carolyn Goodman. He was devoted to social justice and got involved from an early age. He went to Queens College where he planned to study drama, but switched to anthropology as he became more politically involved. (4)
Though he was white, he was very involved in the cause to get black Americans registered to vote, among much other civil rights work. (4)
His parents started the Andrew Goodman Foundation to carry on her son's purpose in life. In 2014, the foundation launched Vote Everywhere for college students who are continuing the work of Freedom Summer. He has had mountains, schools and buildings named after him to help carry on his legacy. (4)
Michael Schwerer, like Goodman, was white and Jewish, but devoted to civil rights. His friends called him Mickey. He was born to a science teacher and a businessman. He initially attended college to become a veterinarian, but switched his major to rural sociology and transferred to Cornell. (5)
Like the other 2, he was devoted to getting black Americans registered to vote, among other activist initiatives, like attempting to desegregate an amusement park, along with his wife. He organized a black boycott under the principle of "don't shop where you can't work." (5)
Family and friends remembered him as good-natured and full of ideas. He was an animal, sports, and rock music lover. His hometown renamed a section of a a road after him to uphold his legacy. (5)
THE MURDERS ON JUNE 21, 1964
Edgar Ray Killen was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi on January 17, 1925, the first of 8 children. He was a recruiter and organizer for 2 chapters of the Klu Klux Klan. He was also a Baptist preacher and sawmill owner. (2)
The civil rights activists were trying to implore black Americans to vote. When the KKK heard about their plan to develop a voting drive, they developed a plan to destroy their efforts. As such, they attacked the congregation members of the church the men had spoken at and burned it ti the ground as a ploy to lure them to the area, alone. (2)
On June 21, 1964, James, Andrew and Michael traveled to the church, but told the Council of Federated Organizations, which they worked with, to start trying to look for them if they hadn't returned by a certain point. Unfortunately, on their way, their car's tire went flat and they were arrested (for speeding). James was arrested and the other 2 men were held for questioning. Back at the office, the workers became alarmed when they hadn't returned by nearly 5 PM. (2)
9 men were masterminds behind the conspiracy to murder James, Andrew and Michael (1). They included:
- Lawrence Rainey, the Neshoba County Sheriff
- Bernard Akin, a member of the White Knights
- Other Burkes, a 25 year veteran of the police (who had been awaiting indictment for another civil rights related case at the time of arraignment)
- Olen Burrage, who owned the farm where they buried the bodies
- Killen, whom you're familiar with
- Frank Herndon, the Exalted Grand Cyclops of the White Knights (Lord these men are absolute losers)
- James Harris, a member who kept tabs on the 3 men's every move
- Herman Tucker who was not a member, but was Burrage's worker and he was given the assignment to dispose of their car after the murder
- Samuel Bowers, the White Knights Imperial Wizard (WIZARD!!!)
The lynch mob itself extended beyond the conspirators, including deputy sheriff Cecil Price. He had no experience in law enforcement but was hired after his friend, Rainey, was elected sheriff. Other lynch mob members included (1):
- Travis Barnette, member of the White Knights
- Alton Roberts, a dishonorably discharged Marine
- Jimmy Arledge, a high school drop out
- Jimmy Snowden, a U.S. army veteran
- Jerry Sharpe, a young pulp wood supply worker
- Billy Posey, a mechanic, first mob driver until his car broke down
- Jimmy Townsend, a 17-year-old high school kid
- Horace Barnette, driver of the car after Posey's broke down
- James Jordan, White Knights member
After the men were released from the prison at 10 PM for speeding, they were followed by the deputy sheriff. The lynch mob, all drinking and arguing about who got to kill the men, started following as well. (1)
Eventually, they were able to stop the men at a secluded intersection. All 3 young men were shot by Roberts and Jordan. (1)
Roberts shot Andrew and Schwerner at point blank range. Jordan shot Chaney in the abdomen, and then Roberts shot him in the head. Though the organizers and lynch mob all had their involvements, Roberts and Jordan were the only ones who pulled the trigger. (1)
After the victims were dead, they were loaded into their car and transported to Burrage's farm, called Old Jolly Farm. Tucker was there waiting for their arrival. A few of them had met earlier to discuss the details of the burials. Tucker covered up their bodies with a bulldozer. The autopsy on Andrew showed fragments of red clay in his lungs, leading them to believe that he hadn't been killed by the gunshot and was instead buried alive. (1)
After the bodies were buried, Price, the DEPUTY SHERIFF, told the group they had done a good job, but the first man who talked would be dead. He said if anyone said anything about it, the rest of the group would kill him. (1)
A search began after the men had been reported missing. Their smoldering car that Tucker had abandoned and set ablaze was found, and a broader search was put together to find the men. Their disappearance captured the nation, and it was referred to by President Johnson as "the whole country's concern". (1)
The bodies were eventually found on August 4, 1964, 44 days after they had been murdered. They were found from a tip from an informant who didn't name himself at the time. He was eventually revealed to be Maynard King, a Highway Patrol officer. The 2 Jewish (white) men, Michael and Andrew, were shot once in the heart, but James had been severely beaten, castrated and shot 3 times. (1)
Given that the murders took place in the mid 60s, no one really made an effort to prosecute anyone involved. The FBI conducted a vigorous investigation, under pro-civil rights President Lyndon B. Johnson, and a grand jury assembled in December of 1964. 18 men were arrested and charged with conspiracy to violate civil rights. (2)
Though the trial was kind of a huge miss, it was also a historic win. The all-white jury convicted 7 of the conspirators, including the deputy sheriff. It was the first time that a white jury had ever convicted a white official of civil rights-related killings. Because they were charged only with a violation of rights and not murder, none of the guilty men were sentenced to more than 6 years. (2)
The 7 men convicted were Cecil Price (deputy sheriff) Samuel Bowers (Imperial Wizard, loser) Alton Roberts (shooter), Jimmy Snowden (present at murders) Billy Posey (driver), Horace Barnette (driver) and Arledge (present at murders). (1)
Jordan, who had been one of the 2 men who actually killed the men, confessed in exchange for a plea deal. However, he received so many death threats he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. (1)
However, 8 other men were acquitted and the prosecution decided not to retry his case. For the 3 other defendants, including Killen, who many admitted was the instigator, the trial ended in a hung jury. Killen's hung jury was deadlocked 11-1, but the one holdout said that she could never convict a preacher. (1)
REOPENING THE CASE (2)
Over 20 years later, an award winning investigative reporter named Jerry Mitchell wrote extensively about the case. He helped secure convictions for other high-profile murder cases during the Civil Rights Era, including a Baptist church bombing and the assassinations and murders of Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer.
Mitchell was assembling new evidence in the Killen's case, working with a high school teacher, Barry Bradford, and 3 students. The students persuaded Killen, a free man, to do a taped interview about the murders. In the video, he stayed true to his segregationist views. The team found witnesses, created a website and lobbied to Congress to reopen the case. The mother of one of the victims called the team "super heroes".
But despite the progress the team made, the case was not officially reopened until 2004, 40 years after the murders had taken place. A group of Neshoba County citizens formed the Philadelphia Coalition to seek justice for the murders. More than 1,500 people attended their 40th anniversary event, including governors and congressmen. After a successful meeting, the Coalition continued to work throughout the summer, meeting with parents of the deceased and officials attorney general Jim Hood and district attorney Mark Duncan, demanding the case be reopened.
The group was supported by the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, and an anonymous donor provided funds to provide for anyone with information that could lead to an arrest.
After a year of working diligently for the cause, on January 6th, 2005, attorney general Hood and district attorney Duncan convened a grand jury, and indicted Edger Ray Killen for the 3 murders that had occurred almost 41 years before. He was arrested on 3 counts of murder, but freed on bond.
The trial was scheduled to begin on April 18, 2005, but was deferred when Killen, now 80, broke both of his legs. Karma? The trial began officially on June 13, 2005, and after a quick trial, he was found guilty of manslaughter on June 21, 2005, 41 years to the day after the murders took place.
The jury this time consisted of 9 white jurors and 3 black jurors. The murder charge was rejected, but they found him guilty of organizing and recruiting the mob who actually carried out the deaths. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison, 20 for each count. He would have been eligible for parole after 20 years, when he was 100 years old.
The judge, Marcus Gordon, said that each of the lives senselessly ended was valuable, and essentially, he didn't care that he was an old, old man and would not have any mercy on him because of his age.
Killen was released from prison on August 12 on a $600,000 appeal bond. He had claimed that he could no longer use his right hand and was confined to his wheelchair, though many people in the community witnessed him walking around with no issues, and using his right hand to shake people's hands. Though Gordon had initially accepted the testimony that Killen was not a danger to the community given his state, after hearing that he was actually fine, he was ordered back to prison. He tried to appeal his conviction again, but it was upheld on August 12, 2007.
Killen moved around a lot, starting in the Mississippi Department of Corrections, then the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, and finally the Mississippi State Penitentiary. His release date was set for September 1, 2027, when he would have been 102.
Killen tried to fight his conviction through various different means, including a lawsuit against the FBI in 2010. He alleged that one of his lawyers in 1967 was an FBI informant, and that the FBI had hired a gangster to coerce a witness. It seems odd to go after your lawyer from 1967 when in that case, you were acquitted and got to remain free for another 41 years, but okay. The case was dismissed a year later.
From August 2010 to November 2011, Killen's cellmate was a black preacher named James Hart Stern, who was serving time for wire fraud. The 2 became very close during that time, and Killen wrote dozens of letters to Stern about race, and making some confessions to other crimes. He also signed over his power of attorney to him.
Killen died at the age of 92 in prison.
Was justice served in this case? Not really. Out of 18 people who were actively involved in the death of 3 innocent men who were trying to help people register to perform their civic duty to vote, only 7 were convicted at the time and spent pretty short amount of time behind bars for it. Killen received 41 years of undeserved freedom for a crime he instigated, and 10 other people never spent a day behind bars for the crime they committed.
But in some ways, it is still a win. The immense efforts put forward by people: journalists, teachers, students, and citizens to bring a man to justice nearly half a century after his crimes is an incredible testament to the strides that can be made when people believe in a cause. Even today, people stop caring about things months, weeks, even days after they occur. To believe so passionately and fervently in justice to not only care about a case 41 years later, but to put in the work to make it happen makes me feel confident in the abilities of good people in the U.S.
In 1964, many people got away with horrific crimes they should have been put in prison forever for. Unfortunately, we cannot right all of those wrongs now. But with passionate, hard-working citizens who genuinely care about justice, especially now, I think we have the ability to enact real, genuine change for the good of the world.
41 years ago today, a group of people proved it was possible.