The 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning,” starring Willem Defoe and Gene Hackman, brought to the big screen a disturbing fictional account of the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, a trio that was killed in the summer of 1964 after working to register blacks to vote in Neshoba County, Mississippi.
The real events were far more tragic, as the Ku Klux Klan, cloaked in the protection that often was provided by the White Citizens Councils throughout the south that provided a more public but equally sinister face of arch segregation, allowed their brothers in sheets to use terrorism to prevent local blacks from enjoying basic constitutional protections under the banner of “States’ Rights” to nullify Federal law.
(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Andrew Young at a press conference discussing the three missing civil rights workers in ’64)
Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were volunteers for the Congress of Racial Equality, a group that had been led since the early 1940’s by James Farmer and was responsible for training and deploying thousands of young black and white students to challenge Jim Crow in 1961, first through the Freedom Rides on Trailways and Greyhound buses, and later through the establishment of Freedom Schools and voter registration drives.
While their base of operations was located in Philadelphia (Neshoba County) Mississippi, on Memorial Day in 1964, Schwerner and Chaney addressed a church congregation in nearby Longdale and announced that a Freedom School and voter registration drive would soon commence. In a matter of weeks, the Klan firebombed Mount Zion Church, and on June 21, 1964, while returning from investigating the incident, Chaney was arrested allegedly for driving 65 mph in a 35 mph zone by Deputy Cecil Price. The men were held at the Neshoba County Jail and at some point later that night, were tortured and later killed by Klansmen acting in cooperation with local law enforcement.
A massive FBI manhunt later ensued, and on August 4th, the Bureau found the three bodies rotting in a nearby earthen dam.
(Bodies found rotting in an earthen dam)
Prior to the bodies being found, state officials mocked the FBI’s investigation, with then Governor Paul Johnson suggesting that the trio were “communists” who “perhaps had gone to Cuba.” When their bodies were found, state officials refused to file murder charges against the 19 men who the FBI had noted as being responsible for their abductions and killing. The US Justice Department subsequently charged the men under the seldom used 1870 Force Act which forbade an individual from depriving another individual of their civil rights. Unlike state murder charges that carried the possibility of a death sentence, the maximum penalty each defendant faced was ten years; in 1967, seven men were found guilty, including Deputy Price and Imperial Klan Wizard Samuel Bowers, and they were sentenced from three to ten years respectively.
(Mugshots of the KKK conspirators)
As for the small town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, following the 1967 trials it would stay out of the news until 1980, when Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan attended the state fair there on August 3rd–almost 16 years to the day the civil rights workers bodies’ were found. Reagan proudly exclaimed, “I believe in states’ rights … I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment.” By 1980, the south had become almost solidly Republican, with every state of the Old Confederacy with the exception of then Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s Georgia being captured by Reagan. Four years later, Reagan would sweep the south and in the time since, while some southern states trended Democratic in voting for Presidents Clinton and Obama, Donald Trump’s dominance in Dixie in 2016 was more typical as the GOP continues to dominate national and state level politics in each and every state of the Old Confederacy.