Summer nights in rural Mississippi can be oppressively hot. The heat makes your skin stick to your clothes. Unfolding your arms and legs is like pulling Scotch tape from your skin. You always seem to be thirsty.
The Mississippi woods are filled with noise at night. As soon as the sun sets, the crickets and bullfrogs begin a loud, rhythmic chant. The sounds continue unabated for hours, long into the dark, until just before sunrise.
On the night of June 21, 1964, three young men drove a Ford station wagon through rural Mississippi. By sunrise they lay dead, buried like field compost by their killers. One can only wonder at the agonizing fright they experienced in the minutes before they were murdered. Did they smell the alcohol on their killers’ breath? Did they have an inkling of their fate?
Perhaps, by the time the shots finally rang out, they actually welcomed death.
What happened to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner on the night of June 21-22, 1964, at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), was horrific, and their brutal deaths shocked the nation. The racially motivated crimes were just several of thousands of beatings, lynchings, and shootings which had been occurring in the Deep South since slavery ended. But it was their deaths 50 years ago that sparked a firestorm of outrage which finally helped eradicate the state-sponsored, legalized racism known as Jim Crow.
Other than being white males, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had little in common with their killers. They were educated, Jewish, and from New York. Goodman had been a classmate of singer Paul Simon at Queens College. “Mickey” Schwerner was an experienced social worker and had attended Michigan State, Cornell, and Columbia University graduate school. As a boy he’d befriended Robert Reich, later U.S. Secretary of Labor, and protected him from bullies. Members of the civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Schwerner and Goodman had volunteered during the Freedom Summer project to encourage Southern blacks to register to vote.
The third, James Chaney, was also a member of CORE. He started volunteering in 1962 when he signed up as a Freedom Rider, traveling on interstate buses in the South to fight segregation. He also organized voter education classes, and had recently introduced Schwerner to black congregants of a Baptist church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where Schwerner hoped to set up a voter education drive.
Chaney did have something in common with his murderers: he hailed from a small town in Mississippi (Meridian). But, unlike them, his skin was black.
On Memorial Day 1964, Schwerner and Chaney met at Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi. They talked to the audience about setting up a Freedom School for blacks. A very different audience, an aggressive wing of the KKK known as the White Knights, later heard about the talk. Doing what they did so well – spreading hatred and terrorism – the White Knights decided to set fire to the church. After the burning, Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman traveled from Meridian to Longdale to view the church’s charred remains, and also to reassure local blacks.
On June 21 they began the return journey to Meridian.
But early in the evening of June 21, a tire on their station wagon went flat in the town of Philadelphia. This stroke of bad luck enabled the Neshoba County cops to jail them on a trumped up charge of speeding. The threesome were eventually released, but they were refused permission to make their legally permissible one phone call. Worse, by the time they started on the road again, a mob of about 18 members of the White Knights had formed. The mob included the so-called protectors of law and order – the police – as well as a so-called minister. They’d heard about these three CORE workers stirring up trouble around Neshoba County. One of the Knights referred to them as representatives of a “nigger-communist invasion of Mississippi.” [Don Whitehead (September 1970). “Murder in Mississippi.” Reader’s Digest: 194.]
Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner left the Neshoba County Jail at about 10 pm. It was dark. The crickets and bullfrogs had begun their nighttime chorus.
Later testimony revealed they initially traveled south along highway 19. They were hoping to reach Meridian without further incident. For some reason, however, they turned westward onto highway 492. Maybe they’d made a wrong turn.
Or maybe they were trying to elude the headlights behind them.