Friday, June 21, 2019

Not So Freedom Summer

On June 21, 1964, one of the most heinous and scandalous murders took place in U.S. history, shocking the country.

Andrew Goodman, 21, a native of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Michael (Mickey) Schwerner, 24, of nearby Pelham, NY, and James Chaney, 21, of Meridian, MS, were all volunteering for the “Freedom Summer” project, sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) aimed at registering African Americans to vote. Schwerner, who led a group called Downtown CORE on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, ran CORE’s field office in Meridian, Mississippi. On the morning of June 21, 1964, the three men traveled to Philadelphia, MS, in Neshoba County. Upon their return to Meridian, their vehicle was stopped for “speeding” by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a known member of the Ku Klux Klan. The three were arrested and taken to jail in Neshoba County. Chaney was booked for speeding (35 MPH in a 30 MPH zone) and Goodman and Schwerner were held for “investigation.” Chaney was eventually fined $20 and the trio was instructed to leave the county. Prior to crossing into safer Lauderdale County, Price, who was following Chaney’s car, ordered them into his car and drove them to a deserted area where he handed them over to fellow klansman, who beat Chaney and then shot and murdered all three men.

This murder changed the course of the Civil Rights movement. Because Goodman and Schwerner were white, Jewish northerners, the case garnered attention outside the segregated south. The FBI investigated the men’s “disappearance,” and eventually found the men’s remains, which were buried in an earthen dam. In 1967, the federal government prosecuted Deputy Sheriff Price and nine others for conspiracy to deprive the three men of their civil rights and the Enforcement Act of 1870, the only federal statutes applicable that could be proven. The jury convicted seven of the ten, including Price. Three men were acquitted, including Ray Killen, the former KKK organizer who had allegedly planned and oversaw the murders.

Journalists have pursued additional prosecutorial leads during the decades since the murders, trying to uncover additional evidence to allow the state to press charges. In 2004, Barry Bradford, an Illinois high school teacher, along with a few students, researched the case thoroughly and created a documentary, which offered new evidence, including an interview with Killen, and presented convincing reasons to re-open the case. As a result, in 2005, the state charged Killen in the murder of the three activists. He was convicted of three counts of manslaughter, not murder, as the jury did not feel the state proved that he intended in advance for the three to be murdered. He was sentenced to 3 consecutive terms of 20 years in prison.

In 2014, President Barack Obama presented Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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