Mississippi Burning is an Academy Award nominated movie loosely based on the horrific events of the summer of 1974. The true story is even more heartbreaking.
In 1964, the state of Mississippi was at the heart of the Civil Rights debate. The Woolworth Sit-In had occurred the year before, and "Whites Only" signs were still in use. That summer, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were part of group of 1,000 northern college students that traveled to Mississippi to participate in Freedom Summer. They intended to help with voter registration and improve race relations in the state.
Mississippians were pissed about the invasion of smug college kids, and the situation got worse. The Klan was revived.
A reporter from Jackson's Clarion-Ledger had this to say about the attitude of Mississippi residents:
"Mississippians have preconceived notions about the invading students—smug, shrill know-it-all extroverts with a savior complex...problem brats defiant of parental restraint...sexually promiscuous, addicted to interracial love-making...brainwashed in Communist doctrine with no clear idea of Americansm...more hostile to the White South than to Red Russia."
Chaney, 21, was a local black Mississipian well versed with the state's racism. Goodman, 20, was college kid from New York while Schwerner, also from New York, was a veteran activist at 24. The three had been working in Neshoba county to register blacks to vote, opening "Freedom Schools," and organizing black boycotts of white-owned businesses.
Schwerner, known as "Jew-boy" or "Goatee" among the Klansmen, had become a target since his efforts at organizing the boycotts and registering blacks to vote had been more successful than the Klans intimidation tactics.
Sam Bowers, Imperial Wizard of the White Knights, had already launched Plan 4, an unsuccessful attempt to get rid of Schwerner. When he heard Schwerner had come to Neshoba County investigate a recent Klan attack on a Mt. Zion Church, he made his move.
On June 21st, Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman arrived at the burned church and met with some of the members who had been beaten. They soon learned Schwerner had been the real target as he'd been expected to be at the church when the attack took place.
Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price
Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers
As the men left the area with the intent to return to Meridian, MS, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price pulled the three men over for speeding. He arrested them for suspicion of arson for the fire at Mt. Zion Church.
I can only imagine what went through those boys minds. All three had to know they were in deep trouble.
They were never seen alive again.
The KKK didn't count on the disappearance of three civil rights workers in southern Mississippi getting so much national attention. The FBI was soon involved, and after a KKK member turned informant, put together the following timeline:
* Schwerner was denied a jailhouse phone call.* Deputy Price informed Klansmen of the capture of Schwerner.* Klansmen organized of group for some "butt ripping."* Two Klan meetings were held, and it was decided the younger Klan members would kill the workers.* The men were freed from jail around 10 p.m. Price followed them up Highway 19* After a high-speed chase, Chaney stopped the car and the three surrendered.* They were placed in Price's patrol car and driven down a dirt road.* The workers were taken from the car. Schwerner was shot first, then Goodmen, then Chaney. The FBI's informant said Chaney was shot twice.*The bodies were taken to a 253-acre farm with a dam site. They were placed together and covered with dirt.* On August 4, 1964, the FBI received information about the bodies, and they were recovered.
The bodies of Schwerner, Goodmen, and Caney.
It gets worse. The charges against 19 participators were dropped because a judge ruled the informant's information was hearsay.
The group was finally brought to trail in 1967. Seven were found guilty, including Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers.
Federal Judge William Cox, a known segregationist, imposed sentencing. Price received six years, Bowers 10.
They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved.
--Federal Judge William Cox.
We have come a long way since the terrible events in Mississippi in 1964. I can only hope the death of these three men served some great purpose. Unfortunately, racism is still alive and well in this country, especially in the south. Last year, a Mississippi federal judge ordered a school to change attendance policies that he said amounted to racial segregation. In other Mississippi counties, segregated proms and other events have taken place. Why? Is the color of skin such an intimidating factor? I will ever understand how a white person can see someone who looks different than they do and automatically believe that person is somehow inferiorer.
What about you? I know some of you are from the South - have you seen the continuing segregation? Have things changed since you grew up? What about those of you from other parts of the country and world? Is racism still a factor?