The Mississippi Burning Case

History Casts Long Shadow On Trial Of Murders Of Civil Rights Workers
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Freedom Summer - 1964

civil rights movement in 1964, named Freedom Summer, was a campaign launched to get blacks in the southern United States registered to vote. Thousands of students and civil rights activists, both white and black, joined the organization, Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and traveled to southern states to register voters. In was in this atmosphere that three civil rights workers were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Michael Schwerner and James Chaney

Michael Schwerner, a 24-year old from Brooklyn, New York, and 21-year old James Chaney from Meridian, Mississippi, were working in and around Neshoba County, Mississippi, to register blacks to vote, opening "Freedom Schools" and organizing black boycotts of white-owned businesses in Meridan.

The activities of the civil rights workers enraged the area Klu Klux Klan and plan to rid the area of the more prominent activists was in the works. Michael Schwerner, or "Goatee" and "Jew-Boy" as the Klan referred to him, became a prime target of the Ku Klux Klan, after his success of organizing the Meridan boycott and his determination to register the local blacks to vote was more successful than the Klan's attempts to put fear into the black communities.

Plan 4

The Ku Klux Klan was very active in Mississippi during the 1960s and many of the members included local businessmen, law enforcement, and prominent men in the communities.

Sam Bowers was the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights during "Freedom Summer" and had an intense dislike for Schwerner. In May 1964, the Lauderdale and Neshoba KKK members received word from Bowers that Plan 4 was activated. Plan 4 was to get rid of Schwerner.

The Klan learned that Schwerner had a meeting scheduled on the evening of June 16 with members at the Mount Zion Church in Longdale, Mississippi.

The church was to be a future location for one of the many Freedom Schools that were opening throughout Mississippi. Members of the church held a business meeting that evening and as the 10 were leaving the church around 10 p.m. that night they met face to face with more than 30 klansmen lined up with shotguns.

The Burning of the Church

The Klan was misinformed, however, because Schwerner was actually in Oxford, Ohio. Frustrated at not finding the activist, the Klan began to beat the church members and burned the wood-framed church to the ground. Schwerner learned of the fire and he, along with James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, who were all attending a three-day CORE seminar in Oxford, decided to return to Longdale to investigate the Mount Zion Church incident. On June 20, the three, in a blue CORE-owned Ford station wagon, headed south.

The Warning

Schwerner was very aware of the danger of being a civil rights worker in Mississippi, especially in Neshoba County, which had the reputation as being particularly unsafe. After stopping overnight in Meridian, MS, the group headed straight for Neshoba Country to inspect the burned out church and meet with some of the members who had been beaten.

During the visits, they learned the real target of the KKK was Schwerner, and they were warned that some local white men were trying to find him.

Klan Member Sheriff Cecil Price

At 3 p.m. the three in the highly visible blue Core-wagon, set off to return to Meridan, Ms. Stationed at the Core office in Meridian was Core worker, Sue Brown, who was told by Schwerner if the three weren't back by 4:30 p.m., then they were in trouble. Deciding that Highway 16 was a safer route, the three turned onto it, headed west, through Philadelphia, Ms, back to Meridan. A few miles outside of Philadelphia, Klan member, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, spotted the CORE wagon on the highway.

The Arrest

Not only did Price spot the car, but he also recognized the driver, James Chaney. The Klan hated Chaney, who was a black activist and a born Mississippian.

Price pulled the wagon over and arrested and jailed the three students for being under suspicion of arson in the Mount Zion Church fire.

The FBI Becomes Involved

After the three failed to return to Meridan on time, CORE workers placed calls to the Neshoba County jail asking if the police had any information about the three civil rights workers. Jailer Minnie Herring denied any knowledge of their whereabouts. All of the events that took place after the three were imprisoned is uncertain but one thing is known for sure, they were never seen alive again. The date was June 21, 1964.

By June 23, FBI agent John Proctor and a team of 10 agents, were in Neshoba Country investigating the disappearance of the three men. What the KKK had not counted on was the national attention that the three civil rights workers disappearance would ignite. Then, President, Lyndon B. Johnson put the pressure on J. Edgar Hoover to get the case solved. The first FBI office in Mississippi was opened and the military bused sailors into Neshoba County to help search for the missing men.

The case became known as MIBURN, for Mississippi Burning, and top FBI Inspectors were sent to help with the investigation.

The Investigation

The FBI investigating the disappearance of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi in June 1964 were finally able to piece together the events that took place because of Ku Klux Klan informants who were there the evening of the murders.

  • When in the Neshoba County jail, Schwerner asked to make a phone call and the request was refused.
  • Price contacted Klansmen, Edgar Ray Killen, and informed him that he captured Schwerner.
  • Killen called Neshoba and Lauderdale county Klansmen and organized a group for what was referred to as some "butt ripping." A meeting was held at a drive-in in Meridian with local Klan leaders.
  • Another meeting was held later when it was decided that some of the younger Klan members would do the actual killings of the three civil right workers.
  • Killen instructed the younger Klan members to purchase rubber gloves and they all met at 8:15 p.m., reviewed the plan on how the killings would take place and drove by the jail where the three were being held.
  •  Killen then left the group to attend a wake for his deceased uncle.
  • Price freed the three jailed men around 10 p.m. and followed them as they drove down Highway 19.
  • A high-speed chase between Price and the CORE group ensued, and Chaney, who was driving, soon stopped the car and the three surrendered to Price.
  • The three men were placed in Price's patrol car and Price, followed by two cars of young Klan members, drove down a dirt road called Rock Cut Road.
  • The three were taken from the car and 26-year-old Wayne Roberts, shot Schwerner, then Goodman, then Chaney. Informant James Jordan told the FBI that Doyle Barnette also shot Chaney twice.
  • The bodies were taken to a pre-arranged site owned by Olen Burrage. It was a 253-acre farm that had a dam site. The bodies were placed together in a hollow and covered with dirt. Price was not present during the disposal of the bodies.
  • At 12:30 a.m., Price and Klan member, Neshoba County Sheriff Rainey had a meeting. Details of the meeting were not disclosed.
  • On August 4, 1964, the FBI received information about the location of the bodies and they were uncovered at the dam site at the Old Jolly Farm.

The Informant

By December 1964, Klan member James Jordan, an informant for the FBI, had provided them with enough information to begin their arrests of 19 men in Neshoba and Lauderdale Counties, for conspiracy to deprive Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman of their civil rights.

Charges Dismissed

Within a week of the arrest of the 19 men, the U.S. Commissioner dismissed the charges ruling that Jordan's confession that led to the arrests was hearsay.

A federal grand jury in Jackson, MS, upheld the indictments against the 19 men but on February 24, 1965, Federal Judge William Harold Cox, well known for being a die-hard segregationist, said that only Rainey and Price acted "under the color of state law" and he threw out the other 17 indictments.

It was not until March 1966 that the U.S. Supreme Court would overrule Cox and reinstate 18 of the 19 original indictments.

The trial began on October 7, 1967, in Meridian, Mississippi with Judge Cox presiding. The entire trial permeated an attitude of racial prejudice and KKK kinship. The jury was an all white with one member an admitted ex-Klansman. Judge Cox, who had been heard referring to African Americans as chimpanzees, was of little help to the prosecutors.

Three Klan informants, Wallace Miller, Delmar Dennis, and James Jordan, gave incriminating testimony about the details that led up to the murder and Jordan testified about the actual murder.

The defense was made up of character witlessness, relatives and neighbors testifying in support of the accused alibis.

In the government's closing arguments, John Doar told the jurors that what he and the other lawyers said during the trial would soon be forgotten, but "what you 12 do here today will long be remembered."

On October 20, 1967, the verdict was decided. Out of the 18 defendants, seven were found guilty and eight not guilty. Those found guilty included, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, Wayne Roberts, Jimmy Snowden, Billey Posey, and Horace Barnett. Rainey and owner of the property where the bodies were uncovered, Olen Burrage were among those acquitted. The jury was unable to reach a verdict in the case of Edgar Ray Killen.

Cox imposed sentence on December 29, 1967.