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September 16th, 2009

Murder to miracle in Mississippi



George Curry

To many Blacks who grew up in the Deep South before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the election of James Young as the first African-American mayor of Philadelphia, Miss. was as monumental as the election of President Barack Obama.

The Mississippi soil is soaked in the blood of civil rights activists. Three of the most famous - James Chaney, a 21-year old African-American from Meridian, Miss.; Andrew Goodman, 20, a White Jewish student from New York and Michael Schwerner, 24, another White also from New York - were murdered 45 years ago near Philadelphia. Their story inspired the movie, "Mississippi Burning."

Their lives were anything but a movie.

All three were participating in Freedom Summer, a Bob Moses-inspired project to bring college-aged students to the Magnolia state in 1964 to dramatize social, economic and political injustice. They had traveled 36 miles from Meridian to Philadelphia, Miss. to investigate the recent burning of Mount Zion United Methodist Church, which had hosted many civil rights activities in the area before it was destroyed by fire.

Before the trio left Meridian on June 21, 1964, a description of their blue, Ford station wagon and its license plate number had been given to the White supremacist Citizens Council and the Klu Klux Klan. With Chaney behind the wheel, Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a member of the KKK, flicked on his flashing lights and pulled the vehicle over. Chaney was arrested for allegedly driving 35 miles over the speed limit and his two companions were held for further investigation. They were taken to the county jail in Philadelphia.

Chaney was fined $20 and all three were released late that night and ordered to leave the county. Prior to letting them go, however, Deputy Sheriff Price notified his fellow Klansmen, who plotted to murder the men. Price followed the three civil rights workers to the edge of town, pulled them over again, and detained them until KKK members arrived.

In a signed statement to FBI agents on November 20, 1964, Horace Doyle Barnette, a witness, recounted:

"Before I could get out of the car Wayne [Roberts] ran past my car to Price’s car, opened the left rear door, pulled Schwerner out of the car, spun him around so that Schwerner was standing on the left side of the road, with his back to the ditch and said "Are you that N-- lover’ and Schwerner said ‘Sir, I know just how you feel.’ Wayne had a pistol in his right hand, then shot Schwerner. Wayne then went back to Price’s car and got Goodman, took him to the left side of the road with Goodman facing the road, and shot Goodman.

"When Wayne shot Schwerner, Wayne had his hand on Schwerner’s shoulder. When Wayne shot Goodman, Wayne was standing within reach of him. Schwerner fell to the left so that he was laying along side the road. Goodman spun around and fell back toward the bank in back.

"At this time Jim Jordan said ‘save one for me.’ He then got out of Price’s car and got Chaney out. I remember Chaney backing up, facing the road, and standing on the bank on the other side of the ditch and Jordan stood in the middle of the road and shot him. I do not remember how many times Jordan shot. Jordan then said. ‘You didn’t leave me anything but a N--, but at least I killed me a N--.’"

A shaken President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a vocal critic of civil rights leaders, to investigate the disappearance of the three men.

The FBI offered a $25,000 reward. That led to a tip about where the bodies were buried. On August 4th, the bodies were dug up about six miles from Philadelphia. In the process of searching for the slain civil rights workers, the bodies of seven other activists were discovered.

The nation soon learned how Mississippi justice worked - or didn’t work.

Mississippi officials refused to press murder charges, forcing the Justice Department to prosecute suspects for conspiring to deprive citizens of their civil rights. Seven men were found guilty, including Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and KKK Imperial Wizard Samuel Bowers. Although the sentencing ranged from three to 10 years, no one was imprisoned longer than six years. Edgar Ray Killen, the ringleader of the plot, was found guilty of manslaughter years later and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Bowers was later sentenced to life for the murder of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer.

Mayor-elect Young was mindful of that bloody history after he defeated Rayburn Waddell, the three-term White incumbent, by 46 votes in a city that is 55 percent White.

A tearful Young told CNN, "The places where we were locked out, I’m gonna have the key. The places we couldn’t go, I’ve got the key. No better way to say it than that."

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