(This is the second part of my two-part profile of the Freedom Summer of 1964 and the brutal murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi)
The lynching of black Americans had a long history, going as far back as Reconstruction. In the early 20th century, particularly in the Mississippi Delta, lynchings rose dramatically, in direct proportion to African Americans finding a foothold as sharecroppers and small landowners. It’s a fact that most lynchings occurred late in the year, when cotton accounts needed to be settled.
By June 1964, the state of Mississippi had the highest rate of lynchings in the country.
On August 4, 1964, after 44 days of searching by the FBI, civil rights organizations, and the U.S. military, the bodies of missing civil rights volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were located. They’d been buried in an earthen dam on a farm near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Both Schwerner and Goodman had been shot in the chest at close range. Chaney had been severely beaten with a metal chain, then shot in the abdomen and head.
Later testimony showed that they had been followed in the night by the KKK and local officials, then stopped and terrorized before being killed. One of the killers had asked Schwerner if he was “that nigger lover.” Schwerner, drawing on skills he’d learned as a leader in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), tried to defuse the situation by responding “Sir, I know just how you feel.” But he was shot nonetheless.
The murderers moved the bodies to Old Jolly Farm, owned by one of the killers, ex-Marine Olen L. Burrage. They then set the victims’ station wagon ablaze near a river along Highway 21.
The Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner case was the most sensational incident of what’s known as the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The three CORE volunteers were part of hundreds of college students, mainly white and from the North, who fifty years ago traveled to rural homes in Mississippi to register blacks to vote. Voter registration was focused on because Mississippi was largely rural, so busing and lunch counter desegregation weren’t big issues. Also, due to intimidation and chicanery by white officials, Mississippi had the lowest percentage of black voter registry than any state in the country; only 6.7 percent of eligible black voters in Mississippi were registered.
Along with registration, the Freedom Summer volunteers established Freedom Schools to educate black children and adults (white Mississippians had a vested interest in keeping black Mississippians ignorant). They also established a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the all-white, segregationist delegation scheduled to appear at the 1964 Democratic Convention.
They did all of this within a dark vortex of violence. Beatings, burnings, and bombings were a reality in 1960s Mississippi.
While the disappearance and murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner made national headlines, Mickey Schwerner’s widow Rita was quoted as saying that, had not two of the victims been white, the killings would never have created such commotion. In fact, during the search, Navy sailors who dragged local rivers uncovered at least eight bodies of young black men who had also been lynched. But their disappearances had not been deemed that important (see “Mississippi Cold Case,” a documentary about two of these murders).
The deaths of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were not in vain. Only a year later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which enforced the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and ended racial discrimination at the voting booth, including eliminating literacy tests and poll taxes. Today, Mississippi has the highest percentage of African American elected officials of any state in the union.
(Note: only a year ago, a conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, weakened the Voting Rights Act by effectively nullifying Section 5 of the Act. This section had required certain states with a history of race bias in voting to submit any election changes to the federal government for approval before they went into effect)
Freedom isn’t free. It has to be fought for, and not necessarily on the battlefield. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were foot soldiers in a non-violent crusade to secure basic human rights for blacks in the most vicious corner of the Deep South. They tragically lost their lives, but their efforts, and those of the other young volunteers in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, put a massive stake in the heart of the idea of white supremacy.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, it’s obvious the fight isn’t over.