The 'Mississippi Burning' Case

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

A civil rights movement in 1964, named Freedom Summer, was a campaign launched to get African Americans 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 plans 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 African American 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 Laurderdale 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 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, 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 Merridan, 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 Merridan 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 about 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.

Next > What The FBI Learned About The Missing Men

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