This week in history: Bodies of 3 Freedom Summer workers found in Mississippi
On Aug. 5, 1964, authorities located the murdered bodies of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — three Freedom Summer workers in Meridian, Miss. — in a shallow grave in nearby Philadelphia, Miss. Here’s how the Chicago Daily News covered the tragedy.
As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:
Throughout most of the summer of 1964, Chicagoans likely watched newspaper headlines for any indication of what happened to James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three Freedom Summer workers in Mississippi who’d gone missing in June. Most assumed they’d died, but no one would ever be brought to justice without the bodies.
On Aug. 5, 1964, the Chicago Daily News finally provided some closure: All three bodies had been located in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Goodman and Schwerner, two New Yorkers working for Congress of Racial Equality, were identified. Chaney, a fellow CORE worker and a Black resident of Meridian, would be identified the next day.
Chaney met Goodman, Schwerner and several other CORE volunteers on June 20, 1964, in Oxford, Ohio, and drove with them down in a CORE-owned station wagon to Meridian, a front-page Daily News article explained on June 24. They planned to register Black Mississippians to vote and help them organize. On June 21, the three men drove to Neshoba County to investigate a church burning.
“They were stopped in Philadelphia, Miss., 12 miles west of Longdale for, the sheriff said, speeding 65 miles per hour in a 30-mile zone,” the report concluded. “They were held, fined, released and escorted out of town, the sheriff said. Whatever happened to them, they dropped from sight Sunday night and haven’t been seen since.”
In Chicago, the disappearances sparked outrage and inspired many young and old to head to Mississippi to continue CORE’s work. Dr. Edgar H.S. Chandler, executive director of the Church Federation of Greater Chicago, said the work was “a fight for freedom in that state — and worth taking the risks.”
Some held out hope for the three men’s safe return. Schwerner’s wife, Rita, told several news outlets that she believed her husband was alive, and she called out the press for picking up the story of murdered CORE workers only when two white men were victims.
“The slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news. It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm has been sounded,” she said.
Stories trickled in over the next month, shedding more details uncovered on the night of the disappearance. Finally on Aug. 5, the FBI, now working on the case, announced three bodies had been found and two had already been identified.
“Gov. Paul B. Johnson said the state’s investigative forces ‘will exert every effort to apprehend those who may have been responsible for the three deaths,’” the wire report said.
When asked what her husband’s death had accomplished, Rita Schwerner told reporter Jack Claiborne it “is up to the people of the United States ... it depends how willing the American people are to put what’s in their hearts now into action.”
The case would absolutely face an uphill battle in Mississippi. Just below that article, another from Edwin A. Lahey in the Daily News Foreign Service from Washington, D.C., detailed the difficult struggle the case faced in getting Mississippi jurors to indict and convict anyone connected to a homicide that grew out of racial conflict.
Lahey described another case from 1959 in which the FBI sent a detailed report to Gov. J.B. Coleman on the murder of Mack Charles Parker, who had been arrested and jailed in Poplarville, Miss., on a rape charge. He was later taken from the jail and murdered, and the killers dumped his body in the Pearl River. Coleman turned the evidence over to a local prosecutor who brought it before a grand jury. But they refused to indict the named killers.
“The evidence was then presented to a federal grand jury at Jackson, to establish a case of violating the dead [Black man’s] civil right to a trial. But the federal grand jury likewise refused to indict,” Lahey wrote, adding that Medgar Evers’ killer had also been tried twice and the Mississippi jury deadlocked both times.
The reporter didn’t mention Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black Chicagoan killed in 1955 whose killers were acquitted and then admitted their crime to Life magazine, but it’s likely many in the city’s Black community thought of him as they read the story.
It would take four more years for Ku Klux Klan members and several local law enforcement officers, including the sheriff who spoke to the Daily News reporter, to stand trial for violating the three men’s civil rights. Seven would be convicted, but the organizer of the killing, Edgar Ray Killen, would go free until he was finally charged with murder in 2005, when a jury convicted him of manslaughter and a judge sentenced him to 60 years in prison.