Fifty-three years ago this month, a horrendous crime was uncovered, exposing the racial hatred embedded within the souls of 18 alleged perpetrators. Remembering the incident is timely today for two reasons.
Found in heavily segregated Mississippi on Aug. 4, 1964, were the bodies of three young civil rights activists – two whites and an African-American – who had disappeared June 21 while helping to organize civil rights efforts on behalf of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The two whites, 24-year-old Michael Schwerner – who was also Jewish – and Andrew Goodman, 20, were New Yorkers who had traveled to Mississippi separately where they teamed up with 21-year-old James Chaney – a member of the local black community.
Schwerner aroused the ire of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) for organizing a successful boycott of a variety store in Meridian and for leading voter-registration efforts for blacks. Schwerner’s success signed his own death warrant – the KKK’s Imperial Wizard of the White Knights, Sam Bowers, ordered his execution.
On the evening of June 16, two dozen armed Klansmen entered the African-American Mt. Zion Methodist Church, expecting to find Schwerner. Failing to do so, they beat the occupants and torched the church.
Returning from a civil rights training session in Ohio on June 21, the three activists went to examine damage at the church – where Schwerner had established a “freedom school.” Returning to Meridian afterward, they were stopped by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, also a Klansman, who had been looking for Schwerner – known to Klan members as “Jew boy.” Price arrested the trio, allegedly on suspicion of church arson.
Kept isolated for seven hours and not allowed to make phone calls, the three made bail and were released – only to be caught again by Price before getting outside city limits, placing them in the backseat of his cruiser. Two other cars, filled with armed Klansmen, soon arrived, and all three vehicles departed. Eventually turning down an unmarked dirt road, the activists were shot dead. Their bodies were then buried in an earthen dam near Mt. Zion Church and their own vehicle later torched.
After the victims’ burned-out car was found, U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy ordered an immediate FBI investigation. Two hundred agents plus federal troops sprang into action, searching for the bodies. Only after turning one of the Klansman to confess did authorities find the bodies. Four months later, 18 people, including Price, were indicted by the U.S. Justice Department for conspiracy to violate the victims’ civil rights. (Such a violation provided the basis for claiming federal jurisdiction as the state of Mississippi made no arrests.)
Although the presiding judge at the trial, U.S. District Judge William Cox, was an ardent segregationist, pressure was put on him to demonstrate impartiality.
An all-white jury convicted seven of the 18, including Price and Bowers. The convictions resulted in a range of sentences from three to 10 years. The judge’s impartiality came into question as he later commented, “They killed one n_____, one Jew and a white man. I gave them what I thought they deserved.” While none of those convicted served more than six years, it was the first time a white jury convicted a white official of civil rights killings.
Of the remaining 11 people charged, eight were acquitted and three cases resulted in hung juries. Unfortunately, among those three was a high-level KKK organizer, Edgar Ray Killen. What turned out to be his one saving grace in the mind of the single juror who would not convict him was that Killen was a Baptist minister.
The case against Killen was re-opened four decades later after he agreed to be interviewed about the murders, recorded by a teacher and his students. As the only tape recording of Killen’s views, it was most revealing about his segregationist mindset and competent mental state.
It was this teacher’s initiative in creating a website and locating other witnesses that eventually led to the case being re-opened. Ironically, Killen was convicted 41 years to the day of the murders. While the nine white and three black jurors would not convict him of murder, they did convict him of recruiting the murderers. Today, 92-year old Killen sits in prison, hoisted by his own petard, eligible for parole in 10 years.
As stated at the outset of this article, this case is currently noteworthy for two reasons.
First, despite assertions from Black Lives Matter (BLM), the fight for racial equality has never been fought by just one race. The fact the civil rights war was one to be fought by all Americans regardless of race was courageously recognized by the likes of Schwerner and Goodman. They left the safety of home and willingly climbed into the trenches alongside their brothers of color deep inside enemy territory – paying the ultimate price for doing so. That is why in a race war, ALL lives matter, not just black ones.
The fact an all-white jury, back in 1967, was able to hold seven white men accountable for murdering blacks also demonstrates this war demands all Americans step up to the plate to ensure justice is done. Four decades after Killen was not found guilty, it was a white high school teacher – not the black community – ensuring Killen’s crime caught up to him.
But there is a more subtle reason why we must remember this incident. We cannot forget how a single juror in Killen’s first trial generated a hung jury – simply refusing to convict a preacher of such a crime. For her, it could not register that a man-of-the-cloth would spew such hate to kill.
But, today, we are giving such religious figures a free pass to do so. Although one could really visit any mosque to hear it, most recently an imam’s call at a California Islamic center for Allah to annihilate all Jews has been met with few demands for his removal.
A 1988 movie about the 1964 killings was titled “Mississippi Burning.” Sadly, nearly 30 years later, unchallenged hatred spewed by BLM and imams across the country is leaving America burning.