1964 “Freedom Summer” Murder Case Closed

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About the picture:

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party supporters demonstrate outside the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Some hold portraits of slain civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

Credit: Library of Congress

On June 20, after an investigation that continued for more than half a century, federal and Mississippi authorities officially closed the books on one of the most heinous, racially motivated criminal cases in the history of the United States civil rights movement. Known as the “Freedom Summer” murder case or the “Mississippi Burning” murder case, it was notable as the first successful federal prosecution of a civil rights case in Mississippi. Outrage over the case helped gain passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In June 1964, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two white civil rights volunteers from New York City, and James Chaney, a black volunteer from Meridian, Mississippi, were working together in Meridian as part of the “Freedom Summer” campaign to help African Americansregister to vote. The campaign was organized primarily by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights organization. At that time, many Southern States had used various methods to deprive blacks of their voting rights. On June 21, the three men were on their way to investigate the burning of an African American church in Neshoba County when they were taken into custody for speeding by a sheriff deputy. After the men were released from county jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a Ku Klux Klan mob followed their car, forced it off the road, and shot the men to death. The volunteers’ station wagon was found three days later. Initially classified as a missing persons case, the men’s disappearance sparked national outrage and an investigation led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI found the bodies of the three men 44 days later, buried in an earthen dam.

In 1967, 18 men were tried on federal civil rights charges in the case. An all-white jury convicted seven of them of violating the civil rights of the Freedom Summer volunteers. At the time, no federal murder statutes existed, and the state never brought charges. None of the convicted men served more than six years in prison. The plot leader, Edgar Ray Killen, a Baptist minister, avoided a trial due to a hung jury. Killen was finally convicted in a 2005 trial based on new evidence unveiled in 2000. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison, where he remains today at age 91.

In 2010, federal authorities reopened the investigation in search of evidence to allow them to convict the remaining suspects. However, that investigation came to a halt 18 months ago after a witness backed out at the last minute after pledging to sign a sworn statement that would have implicated a suspect, according to Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood.

Monday’s decision means that no other suspects in the case will be prosecuted. “It has been a thorough and complete investigation,” Hood said. “I am convinced that during the last 52 years, investigators have done everything possible under the law to find those responsible and hold them accountable; however, we have determined that there is no likelihood of any additional convictions… Our state and our entire nation are a much better place because of the work of those three young men and others in 1964 who only wanted to ensure that the rights and freedoms promised in our Constitution were afforded to every single one of us in Mississippi.” In 2014, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner Presidential Medals of Freedom.

Other World Book articles

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