Down a Southern Road | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Down a Southern Road

Monday, June 21, is the 40th anniversary of the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

New Yorker Michael Schwerner, a Cornell University sociology major, Mickey to family and friends, came to Mississippi in early 1964 with his wife, Rita, to help register blacks to vote and teach them to read—as part of a joint effort waged by young Northern whites and Southern blacks of all ages who were "sick and tired of being sick and tired," as sharecropper-turned-movement-mother Fannie Lou Hamer famously put it.

Schwerner was a restless and affable 24-year-old who had already dedicated himself to working for social justice. The Schwerners opened the Meridian office of the Congress of Racial Equality, referred to as CORE, across the street from Beal's Cafe in February 1964; the more clean-cut local members of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan—the terrorist group formed by Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest during Reconstruction to scare blacks away from the polls that resurged in the state in the early '60s in response to efforts to end legal segregation—soon dubbed the outspoken northerner "Goatee" due to his "Bolshevik" facial hair.

About 40 miles north of Meridian, Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey had been elected in 1963 in part because he was "hard on Negroes," writes native Philadelphian Florence Mars in her 1976 book "Witness in Philadelphia." Rainey—who had already killed two black men "in the line of duty"—swaggered around in pointy boots and a menacing cowboy hat, with a six-shooter, a blackjack and a nightstick. He'd spit his Red Man juice out the window of his mammoth blue-gray Oldsmobile. In 1964, Rainey quickly became an open member of the Klan. He later told a Meridian klavern that "I have met some of the finest people today that I have ever met," as detailed in a Mississippi Sovereignty Commission report. His baby-faced Deputy Cecil Price also attended that Klan meeting.

In March 1964, Schwerner traveled the 38 miles up Highway 19 to Neshoba County to speak to disenfranchised blacks at the Mt. Zion Methodist Church. Mt. Zion was the heart of Longdale, a thriving (by 1964 standards) black community northeast of town where some residents owned land but still could not vote due to white intimidation, poll taxes and literacy tests imposed in the state soon after blacks became "freedmen." Some were ready to join the movement, but needed support. "You have been slaves too long," Schwerner preached from the pulpit. "We can help you help yourselves."

News of the idealistic New Yorker's speech angered state and local authorities and klansmen; the taxpayer-funded Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, set up by the Legislature to spy on civil rights activities, had reported the Schwerners' license number and detailed descriptions of the couple and their car to Rainey's office so his men could keep them under surveillance. At a meeting of 70 men the night of June 16, 1964, at Bloomo—an abandoned white school—the Klan decided to get Goatee. According to court testimony, Sam Bowers, the imperial wizard of the Mississippi Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who lived in Laurel, south of Meridian, ordered a hit on Schwerner to be orchestrated by local Klansmen. The local sheriff's department would assist in setting the trap.

But first the bait. That night the Klansmen—some wearing robes and hoods, others their law-enforcement uniforms and many stinking of liquor—busted up a stewards' meeting at Mt. Zion, just three miles from the Bloomo school. They wanted both to punish the Longdale community for entertaining "civil rightsers" and to draw Goatee back into Neshoba County. Under cover of night, the Klan beat several church members and pistol-whipped one elderly man, Junior Roosevelt "Bud" Cole. They spared his life when his wife, Beatrice, dropped to her knees and started reciting an old Methodist hymn. ("The devil was sponsoring that group, but the Lord was there," she later told her friend Florence Mars.) Fortunately, she had left her batch of CORE flyers at home in another purse.

The ploy worked. On June 21, Father's Day, Schwerner and 20-year-old Andrew Goodman, a Queens College anthropology major from New York's Upper West Side who was working his first day in Mississippi, joined a determined black activist from Meridian, James Chaney, 21. Chaney, called J.E. by his family, drove them in CORE's light-blue 1963 Ford Fairlane station wagon north into Neshoba County where they poked around the ashes of the church and spoke to members of the congregation.

As they headed back toward town at about 3:30 p.m. before turning south toward Meridian, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price pulled them over—he said Chaney had not slowed to 35 mph quickly enough when he crossed the city limits. Price then locked them into the tiny county jail a block from the square at 422 Myrtle Street so he could supposedly investigate them for the Mt. Zion church burning. He did not allow them any phone calls, and they apparently were not roughed up in anyway. For dinner, the jailer's wife, Minnie Herring, served the men their last supper, giving Goodman his first taste of Mississippi home cooking: chicken-and-dumplings, snap beans, green salad, potatoes, cornbread, cake and sweet tea. About the time Goodman was sampling his dumplings, an unidentified man at the jail answered the phone and told a worried CORE volunteer that no one had seen the three men.

About 10:30 p.m., Price charged Chaney a $20 fine and released them. Price walked them to their car parked nearby and then he and city policeman Richard Willis followed them south on Highway 19. They had no chance to make a phone call. The men then passed Pilgrim's store; the lynch mob of men from both Philadelphia and Meridian waited in the store's parking lot with specific instructions from the Klan leaders, including Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen, according to testimony. Several of them argued over who would pull the trigger. By then, Killen had moved on to McClain-Hayes funeral home where he signed both the register for his deceased Uncle Alex Rich and that of a little girl in the next parlor, perhaps to make doubly sure of his alibi.

Then Price passed Pilgrim's store, his red lights flashing. The mob followed. Chaney made a run for it, leading Price on a high-speed chase, until he finally pulled over about 10 miles south of Philadelphia. This time several men with revolvers instead of badges accompanied Price. They forced the boys into Price's cruiser; the deputy whacked Chaney's head with his nightstick to get him in the car. Meridian truck driver Jimmy Arledge drove their station wagon. They turned onto Rock Cut Road and then pulled over to the side.

Meridian bar owner Alton Wayne Roberts pulled Schwerner out of the car first, holding a pistol to his chest. "Are you that nigger lover?" the hulk of a man asked, his left hand on Schwerner's shoulder. The young man replied, "Sir, I know just how you feel." Roberts shot him in the heart. He then pulled Goodman out of the car and shot him in the chest, near his right shoulder.

Meridian trailer salesman James Jordan ran over, yelling, "Save one for me!" He then pulled Chaney out of Price's blue Chevy police cruiser but let him go. Chaney backed away from the men across the ditch until he was standing with his back to the clay bank. He recognized a Meridian klansman among the men who lined the dirt road, watching. He begged for his life. Jordan then shot Chaney in the stomach, exclaiming, "You didn't leave me nothing but a nigger, but at least I killed me a nigger." Roberts then fired into Chaney's lower back and his head.

Members of the mob picked up the men by their wrists and ankles and threw them in the back of their station wagon in the same order they were murdered. Meridian klansman Horace Doyle Barnette (whose confession provided many of the details) had to stuff Chaney's foot inside the car to get the tailgate to close.

Neshoba County Phillips 66 mechanic Billy Wayne Posey drove the station wagon to what he called "the spot." He told the rest: "Everybody follow me. I know where we're going." At that point, Price returned to town to establish his alibi. The others took back roads west of town to the Old Jolly Farm, owned by businessman Olen Burrage, where bulldozer operator Herman Tucker, 36 and father of six children, waited to bury the men under an earthen dam he was building for Burrage. Posey and Arledge dumped the three bodies in the hole: first Chaney, then Goodman, then Schwerner.

For 44 days after Tucker bulldozed the three bodies under a red-clay dam, the county lived in suspended animation with many locals jeering at investigators and threatening reporters. Navy sailors wearing berets and dress shoes joined FBI investigators—often with their pants legs bound to avoid chiggers—to comb swamps and rivers for dead bodies. They found several murdered black males in various states of decay, but none of the three in question.

The townsfolk chose to believe the men were holed up in a beer joint in Memphis or somewhere, laughing at the stunt they were pulling on the Neshoba County rednecks. Or they repeated every rumor they heard about the men on a Greyhound bus in Alabama or Louisiana—all possibly stories planted by the Sovereignty Commission and the white Citizens Council, a common public-relations defense when a civil-rights crime was reported. They, of course, were wrong.

On Aug. 4, 1964, acting on an informant's tip, investigators quietly gathered on the Jolly Farm, hoping not to attract local attention. In 106-degree heat, they started digging in the middle of the dam, which was 547 feet long, 83 feet thick and 20 feet high. They found the bodies 15 feet down: first Schwerner face down, then Goodman whose arm was draped over Schwerner's body, then Chaney lying on his back. Their facial features had decayed; Goodman's hand clutched a small clod of red clay, possibly indicating that he had been buried alive. By the time the bodies were exhumed, local police were on the scene: Deputy Price solemnly helped escort their bodies to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson for autopsies. The death certificates were stamped "cause of death unknown."

Three years and four months after the executions, the federal government used cobbled-together testimony from paid informants and two confessions to prosecute 19 men for conspiracy to violate the three men's civil rights—but not until after the conspirators achieved a certain amount of notoriety in the country. Photos of a smirking Rainey and his Red Man pouch netted him a free case of chewing tobacco from the Pinkerton Tobacco Company of Toledo, Ohio. A photo of the sheriff, smiling and lying on a massage table, also appeared in a local chiropractor's advertisement that read: "Civil Rights Got Him Down in the Back."

The trial had lasting impact: "U.S. vs. Cecil Price et al." was the first civil-rights case ever won in the state, and the investigation and infiltration of the Klan helped stop its most recent reign of terror. Still, the Neshoba County men fared pretty well in the trial. The Meridian jury declared mistrials for both Rainey and Preacher Killen, as well as Sheriff-elect Hop Barnett. But Price and Posey, along with Imperial Wizard Bowers and four other men from outside the county, were convicted. Roberts and Bowers drew the longest sentences from Judge Harold Cox: 10 years. Price and Posey were sentenced to six years, and were out on parole in four years.

The convictions shocked the town, especially the members of the Neshoba County Legal Defense Fund, a group of mostly prominent businessmen who had raised money for the local men's defense. The entire town believed a white Mississippi jury would be loyal to its own.

As the 40th anniversary of the murders dawn on Monday, June 21, no criminal charges have ever been filed against any of the men, some of whom are still alive in the area. A coalition of Neshoba County whites, blacks and Choctaws are now calling for justice for the first time.

The narratives of the events of June 21, 1964, are based on court records and testimony from the federal case against the conspirators.

A 40th anniversary commemoration will be held Sunday, June 20, at the Neshoba County Coliseum and Mt. Zion (see for schedule).

Additional Reading:

"Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement," Susie Erenrich, ed., Black Belt Press, 1999
"Letters from Mississippi," Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez, ed., Zephryr Press, 2002
"Murder in Mississippi," Howard Ball, University Press of Kansas, 2004
"Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63," Taylor Branch, Touchstone Books, 1989
"Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65," Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster, 1998
"Witness in Philadelphia," Florence Mars, Louisiana State University Press, 1977
"We Are Not Afraid," Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, Macmillan, 1988
"Weary Feet, Rested Souls," Townsend Davis, W.W. Norton, 1998

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