Roots of Struggle, Rewards of Sacrifice
On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights workers were murdered in Neshoba County. The trio had come here to investigate the burning of the Mt. Zion Methodist Church in the Longdale community off of Mississippi 16 east. The night the church was burned, parishioners were beaten, some severely. The murders of Michael Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20, were part of a plot hatched by the Lauderdale County unit of the Ku Klux Klan and carried out by members of the Neshoba County unit. The civil rights workers were part of a broader national movement that hoped to begin a voter registration drive in the area, part of the Mississippi Summer Project, that became known as Freedom Summer. A coalition of civil rights organizations known as COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) conceived of a project in the state with massive numbers of student volunteers who would converge on the state to register black voters and to conduct "freedom schools" which would offer curriculum of black history and arts to children throughout the state.
Chaney, a plasterer, had grown up in Meridian, in nearby Lauderdale County, and even as a young student had been interested in civil rights work. Schwerner, a Jewish New Yorker, came south to Meridian to set up the COFO office because he believed he could help prevent the spread of hate that had resulted in the Holocaust, an event that had taken the lives of family members. Chaney volunteered at the Meridian office, and the two young men began to make visits to Neshoba County to find residents there to sponsor voter registration drives and freedom schools. They contacted members of Mt. Zion Methodist Church and Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church, as well as other individuals. They made plans for a COFO project in the area.
Tensions were mounting that summer as some of Mississippi's segregationist newspapers propagated the idea of a "pending invasion" of civil rights workers. The state was a powder keg, as the recently-reformed Ku Klux Klan increasingly made its presence known and fears were heightened among both blacks and whites. In April 1964 the Klan burned about a dozen crosses in Neshoba County. The Neshoba Democrat spoke against the cross burnings and the coercion and intimidation employed by the Klan.
The Ku Klux Klan and other groups had become more active in response to increasing civil rights activity, especially since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation. In addition to the Klan's resistance, the state of Mississippi was continuing to monitor activists through the Sovereignty Commission, which worked in conjunction with the White Citizens Council, to use economic intimidation and threats to attempt to keep blacks in subservient positions. Undertaking such struggles for equality, exemplified by the trio, was dangerous and courageous work. The work was so bold that the Klan vowed to stop it, even putting Schwerner on a hit list and giving him a code name "Goatee."
In mid-June, Chaney and Schwerner traveled to Oxford, Ohio, to participate in the Freedom Summer volunteers training session being held there. While they were away, on June 16, Klansman assaulted members of the Mt. Zion church, looking for Chaney and Schwerner. Later in the evening, they burned the church to the ground. Having been alerted of the attack, Chaney and Schwerner, joined by new volunteer Goodman, immediately drove south to investigate and offer solace to the church members.
On Sunday afternoon, June 21, Father's Day, the three young men drove to Philadelphia from Meridian and visited members of Mt. Zion. On the way through town they were pulled over by a sheriff's deputy. Chaney was arrested and charged with speeding and Schwerner and Goodman were held on suspicion of burning the Mt. Zion church.
What transpired afterwards would change the county, the state, and the nation itself. The three workers were released about 10:30 p.m., and ordered to leave town immediately. On the road to Meridian they were pursued and overtaken by a gang of white men that included law enforcement officials. When they stopped the three men were pulled out of their vehicle and driven to a lonely gravel road of the highway where they were murdered. By the next day, news of their disappearance was known even in the White House. While many white Mississippians denounced the disappearance as a hoax to get attention for Freedom Summer, President Johnson sent in national guardsmen and sailors from a the nearby Meridian navy base to scour the county in search of the three workers.
On June 23, the station wagon the young men had been driving was found burned. By then, if it hadn't seemed clear before, it was now obvious that the three young men had encountered foul play. Back in Oxford, Ohio, the young volunteers had been informed that three of their colleagues were missing and presumed dead. They had to choose to continue the project knowing their safety, even their lives, were at risk. As had been the tradition of many in the civil rights movement, however, the brave young people understood that to give in to violence would end the movement. As the search for their fellow volunteers continued, a thousand young people poured into the state, conducting voter registration drives and setting up freedom schools. On August 4, forty-four days after their disappearance, the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were found buried in a newly-constructed earthen dam about eight miles south of Philadelphia.
By the end of the summer, despite assaults and the burnings of dozens of other churches in the state, the Summer Project had made an impact. The volunteers registered more black voters and initiated a challenge to the all-white Democratic Party that forever changed the national political landscape. Within two years, 100,000 new black voters registered in the state and began running for elected office.
Neshoba County discovered that the cancer of racism infects each person it touches. Although the ravages of the illness found a face in this community, racism is also a part of the breadth and depth of American history and culture. The cure for this epidemic is found only in the hearts of individuals. Today, Neshoba County has begun to heal. The sacrifices of the lives of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner helped ensure a better future for Neshoba County, Mississippi, and the nation.