A Burning Legacy : 25 Years Ago This Summer, 3 Murders in Mississippi Sparked a Revolution in Civil Rights, a Fire the Victims’ Families and Activists Hope to Rekindle

Times Staff Writer

The killings on a dark Mississippi highway took less than five minutes. Now, 25 years later, the nation is about to relive them.

On a hot and sticky night in 1964, a gang of police and Ku Klux Klansmen kidnaped and murdered three civil rights workers after a high-speed chase through the backwoods of Neshoba County. They pulled the young men from their car and shot them one by one, laughing as the victims hurtled backward into a ditch.

Within the next two hours, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were buried in an earthen dam, and it was not until 44 days later that their badly decomposed bodies were discovered by FBI agents. Just before he was killed, Schwerner reportedly looked his executioner in the eye and said, “Sir, I know just how you feel.”


Mississippi, June 21, 1964.

The night the three civil rights workers disappeared, the case became a media sensation. As federal agents slogged through back-country swamps searching for the missing men whose names would become household words, hundreds of journalists descended on the scene and the brutality of Southern racism became front-page news.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 white college students from the North began flooding into Mississippi to help blacks register to vote and organize politically. They were part of the historic “Freedom Summer” program, which black and white activists hoped would focus national attention on the evils of segregation.

“Despite the tragedy, it was one of our country’s finest hours,” says Haywood Burns, a Mississippi volunteer who is now dean of the CUNY Law School at Queens College in New York. “That summer, spurred on by the killings, blacks and whites were working together for simple human justice as they never had before or since.”

It was also a time for Northerners to confront their own racism. How many would have voiced outrage if Goodman and Schwerner--both from Jewish homes--had been black, like Chaney? Before the three murders, blacks had been routinely slaughtered in Mississippi, yet there was little outcry when their bodies were found hanging from trees or floating in rivers.

In 1967, prosecutors cracked the case with informers and convicted eight men for conspiring to deny the civil rights of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. But none served more than 10 years, and some of those originally charged--including Lawrence Rainey, the sheriff of Neshoba County--were acquitted. Soon, the story disappeared from the headlines.

Today, a new generation of college students seems to know little about the case, and Freedom Summer is a distant memory. Although last year’s film “Mississippi Burning” focused on the period, critics say it grossly ignored the leadership--and courage--of blacks in fighting Southern racism. Apart from Queens College, which has commemorated the deaths with special events this year, most campuses are quiet as the anniversary approaches.

But members of the three families and a broad coalition of civil rights groups are not about to let the country forget.

In the years since the murders, the families have continued to be active in civil rights issues, despite emotional wounds that have yet to fully heal. The Goodmans have supported efforts to promote better relations among blacks and Jews, Michael Schwerner’s widow has become involved in women’s issues in her law practice and the Chaney family has spoken out on political and economic issues affecting blacks.

To mark the 25th anniversary next week, the Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman Coalition is sponsoring a bus caravan that will leave Mississippi for the North and focus on the need for greater voter registration. The entourage will begin on June 21 in Philadelphia, Miss., near the site of the killings, and then make stops in Selma, Ala., Washington and finally New York. Hundreds of volunteers who were part of Freedom Summer are expected to join the caravan, including several busloads from California.

It will be an opportunity to remember, and also to rekindle the idealism that led so many men and women to put their bodies on the line in the summer of 1964. Members of the Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney families find it painful to talk about these memories, but believe there are important lessons to be learned from that fateful night in Mississippi. Through their eyes, a turning point in the history of this country comes alive once again.

“I’m more aware than ever of the need for young people to remember the past, to know their history. How can we move them, how can we excite them to care about things as deeply as students once did?” --Carolyn Goodman, mother of Andrew Goodman

Freedom Summer was born out of a crisis in the Mississippi civil rights movement. By early 1964, less than 5% of the state’s 500,000 blacks were registered to vote, despite intense grassroots efforts by a coalition of black organizations.

When blacks tried to register, they frequently were terrorized by the Klan, which had ties to law enforcement officers throughout the state. Some blacks who spoke out simply disappeared and were never heard from again. Others were beaten publicly, their punishment meant as an example to others. Homes and churches were firebombed and cross-burnings were common.

Determined not to back down, civil right activists responded with a daring plan. In addition to local blacks, hundreds of white college students would be invited down to the state to help register more voters. They would come from some of the nation’s best schools, and through their experiences the nation would finally learn the truth about Mississippi.

“The white students brought the rest of the country down with them for a look,” said Robert Moses, a black activist who helped lead the Freedom Summer movement. “And we knew that Mississippi couldn’t stand a hard look.”

Answering the Call

In the spring, activists fanned out across the nation and began seeking volunteers. One of those who answered the call was Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old student from Queens College.

Goodman, a handsome, dark-haired anthropology major, was an ideal recruit. He came from a progressive, politically involved family on New York’s upper west side and had previous experience in the civil rights movement. When he told his parents that he wanted to work in Mississippi for the summer, they found it hard to say no.

“My heart sank when he told us,” says his mother, a psychologist who has long been involved in progressive causes. “We knew all about the dangers down there, but we had encouraged Andy to care about the world around him. Our whole lives would have been a lie if we tried to stop him.”

In mid-June, Goodman departed for a training session in Oxford, Ohio, that was required for all Freedom Summer volunteers. On the night of June 20, he phoned his parents to report that his first assignment would be to check out the burning of a black church near Philadelphia, Miss., that had taken place several days before. He would be traveling with Michael Schwerner, 24, a civil rights worker who had been in the region for six months, and James Chaney, 21, a native of Meridian, Miss., who worked closely with Schwerner.

“That was the last we ever heard from Andy,” says his mother, her voice breaking. “We expected to hear from him later the next day, but it never happened.”

Shortly after midnight on June 21, the Goodmans got a call from a civil rights worker in Mississippi. Their son and the other two men with whom he was traveling had disappeared somewhere on the road between Philadelphia and Meridian. An all-out search was under way.

The parents later would learn that the three men had been arrested by sheriff’s deputies for speeding, taken to a jail in Philadelphia, and then released around 10 p.m. Civil rights workers had been instructed not to travel through the South after dark because of the dangers of violent attacks, and they often insisted on spending the night in custody. From the start, the story that the three men had willingly left the jail at night seemed suspicious.

For the next 44 days, the Goodmans waited anxiously for word of their son. They traveled to Washington with members of the Schwerner family and met with President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was coming under heavy criticism from activists to play a stronger role in protecting civil rights workers. He assured them that FBI agents were doing all they could, but the parents were not convinced.

On the night of Aug. 4, the Goodmans interrupted their tense vigil and tried to relax by attending a concert at Lincoln Center. Midway through the performance, a family friend came rushing down the aisle with terrible news: Andrew and the other two men had been found buried in an earthen dam, according to White House officials. The long wait was over.

As she sits in the living room of her Manhattan apartment, Carolyn Goodman agonizes in the retelling of her son’s death. She still feels rage at the men who were indicted and brought to trial. She still finds it hard to believe that her son was rearrested after he left the jail and then handed over to a posse of Klansmen. Her voice trembles when she asks herself if it would have been better to have kept Andy from going to Mississippi.

“As a mother, there’s nothing worse than losing a son,” she says with sadness. “There’s something about losing a son that’s like taking a piece of your life.”

Goodman composes herself and proudly shows a visitor the Ben Shahn portrait of her boy that hangs in his old bedroom, next to a window facing south.

“I also realize that Andy ennobled my life,” she says. “He made me a better person. His death, along with the other two, changed the nation, and made it a better place.”

Social Service Programs

Five years after the killing, Goodman’s first husband, Robert, died suddenly. Despite these tragedies, she has remarried and remained politically active, helping to create social service programs for Third World mothers and working to improve relations between Arabs and Jews.

After 25 years, her greatest fear is that people will forget the legacy of Freedom Summer. The movement paved the way for tougher civil rights laws, and more than 500,000 blacks in Mississippi are now registered to vote, she notes. Once a bastion of segregation, Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state.

Goodman thumbs through a bound collection of speeches that were delivered at her son’s memorial service and then gently places the book back on a shelf.

“If anything comes out of Andy’s death, let it be this,” she says. “The struggle for freedom continues. It must never end.”

“We knew that Mickey was a marked man, from the minute he set foot in Mississippi. The Klan was watching him, but he did what he had to do.” --Nathan Schwerner, Michael’s father

When Michael and Rita Schwerner first came to Mississippi in January, 1964, they typified the volunteers who would pour into the state later that summer. No strangers to social activism, the two New Yorkers had dedicated their lives to the battle against racial segregation.

Michael, a stocky, sandy-haired young man, and his 21-year-old, dark-haired wife were the first white civil rights workers to be posted outside the state capitol at Jackson. They became the advance guard for students arriving later, and began setting up community centers and voter registration drives in black communities.

As the months passed, “Mickey,” as he was known to his friends, became close friends with James Chaney, a black volunteer, and spent many hours at his small home in Meridian.

From the time he entered Meridian, Schwerner became a prime target for white racists who were determined to crush the civil rights movement. They didn’t like his easy-going manner. They detested the fact that he was Jewish. They ridiculed his slight growth of beard, calling him “goatee” among themselves.

When it became clear that Schwerner would not leave Meridian, even though whites insulted him to his face and harassed his wife with obscene phone calls, they decided to kill him.

Local Klan members concocted a plan to have deputies arrest Schwerner and then, under cover of darkness, turn him over to vigilantes. They were aided in their planning by Philadelphia Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, who hated Schwerner and was a secret member of the Klan.

After several false starts, the plot worked like a charm on the afternoon of June 21. The three civil rights workers were arrested on trumped-up speeding charges as they drove back to Meridian from the burned-out black church and were set free late at night. Price re-arrested them on the highway less than an hour later and handed them over to the Klan.

To the end, Schwerner was faithful to his belief in nonviolent resistance, and even tried to reason with his murderers, telling one of them: “Sir, I know just how you feel.”

Community Alarmed

The disappearance of the workers set off alarms throughout the civil rights community. In Oxford, Ohio, where Rita Schwerner had been helping to conduct orientation classes for Freedom Summer volunteers, a mood of desperation set in.

“It was everybody’s worst fear suddenly come true,” says Staughton Lynd, a history professor who helped run special schools for blacks during Freedom Summer. “We all knew that death was a possibility, but it suddenly hit home. It was an awful moment.”

Putting her emotions on hold, Rita Schwerner realized that the terrorized blacks of Neshoba County would be unlikely to give any information about the three missing men to FBI agents. But she felt there was a chance that she might be able to pry some information from them.

Late at night, Rita Schwerner and veteran activist Robert Zellner drove into the area and began knocking on the doors of black homes. They wanted to keep their presence a secret, but the Klan had spotted them and set up an elaborate trap. Just before dawn, a group of vigilantes in six pickup trucks began chasing Schwerner and Zellner down a narrow highway. Up ahead, they had blocked the road with a flatbed truck.

“I was terrified, because it looked like they wanted to kill us,” says Zellner, who had floored the accelerator of his old Corvair. “But Rita was incredibly cool and in control. She never lost sight of the overriding issues, she was all Movement.”

As he raced through the darkness at 60 m.p.h., Zellner decided that his only chance of escape was to veer off the road and drive through the trees around the flatbed truck. Clutching the wheel, he skidded through the woods, careened back onto the roadway and roared on toward Meridian. The stunned Klansmen began cursing as the Corvair sped out of sight.

In the next few days, she would angrily confront officials ranging from Sheriff Rainey and Mississippi Gov. Paul Johnson to U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and President Johnson. Brushing aside all niceties, she demanded information about her husband and the other two men. In a hastily arranged White House visit, she expressed anger that Johnson had not done more to aid the search, and curtly declined his offers of sympathy.

“This is not a social call,” she told him.

Strong Woman

Reporters who covered Rita Schwerner at the time remember a strong, determined woman who always seemed to put the civil rights cause ahead of her personal tragedy. But soon after Mickey’s body was found, the depths of her sorrow came across in a television interview.

“In a very selfish way I was afraid that something would happen to him, because if something happened to him, what would I do?” she said, seeming to fight back tears. “I loved him very much, I was very dependent on him. And I think he was worried that if something happened to him, what would I do?

“We hadn’t discussed it a lot, but we were aware of the possibility, and it influenced our relationship,” she said. “We knew we’d better make the best of it now, because it might not be a marriage that was going to last for 50 years.”

In the years since, Michael Schwerner’s father and widow have continued to speak out on civil rights. Nathan Schwerner, now in his 80s, cautions that people should remember the larger issues of Freedom Summer rather than memorializing his son.

Rita Schwerner, 46, got a law degree, remarried and started a new life in Washington state. Today, she is reluctant to talk about the impact of Freedom Summer on her personal life and discourages most overtures from the press. But she has strong words about the 25th anniversary and its meaning for the rest of the nation.

“It’s important to remember that summer for all the right reasons,” she says in a telephone interview. “Of course, three families were devastated by this. But you should be thinking about the people who continue to be affected by racism. That’s the real story.”

“I want us all to stand up here together and say just one thing. I want the sheriff to hear this good. We ain’t scared no more of Sheriff Rainey.” --Ben Chaney, Aug. 14, 1964, at a memorial service for his brother

Like any other 11-year-old, Ben Chaney idolized his older brother, James. He tried to dress like him, talk like him and, when James got involved in the Mississippi civil rights movement, he wanted to do the same.

But his mother, Fannie Lee, laid down the law. It was dangerous enough for one of her sons to risk his life.

In 1964, it took great courage for Mississippi blacks to demand the right to vote. Klan violence was a constant threat, and law enforcement officials could not be depended on for even basic protection. Years before, Chaney’s mother had been terrorized when her uncle was lynched for no apparent reason. The family never found his body, but they did get the man’s watch and his shirt, neatly folded, in the mail.

Asked why his brother decided to join the civil rights movement, Ben, now 36 and living in New York, says it was simple destiny.

“At that time in the South, every black person was trying to cross the line. They wanted some excuse to cross the line. When that chance came, you took it.”

For James Chaney, the moment came when he accidentally sat on a bus next to some freedom riders in the early 1960s. Inspired by their commitment, he began taking other freedom rides. Earlier, he had been expelled from school for wearing NAACP paper buttons. Although Chaney’s mother feared for his safety, there was no turning back.

Several years later, when Mickey Schwerner needed a partner to help him launch voter registration drives in Neshoba County, Chaney was a logical choice. The good-looking, slightly built young man was friendly with blacks in the Klan-infested area, and he was also a skilled driver who knew the twisting country roads better than most.

Ben Chaney had made plans to link up with his brother and Schwerner the night of June 21, and he was stunned when they never showed up. Soon, the Chaney household went into a state of shock. Ben’s mother would clean her house four and five times a day, bursting into tears without warning. His two older sisters said little, waiting for some sign of their brother.

Meanwhile, Klan members tormented the family. There were several attempts to firebomb the Chaney home and the neighborhood was plagued with cross burnings. Soon, the family gave up hope that James was alive. Everybody, that is, except Ben.

“I was sure he’d be found, because I admired him so much, I looked up to him so much,” he says, sitting at a desk in his office. “He had all the right moves, he got all the girls. He was my big brother. And I guess I didn’t believe he was dead until I saw him buried in the ground.”

There is a famous photograph of Ben Chaney at his brother’s funeral, tears streaming down his face, as the congregation begins to sing “We Shall Overcome.” But the most dramatic moment came several weeks later, when he defied Sheriff Rainey at a memorial service. The sheriff, who later would be charged in the murders, had inexplicably shown up at the gathering and young Chaney was infuriated.

Afterward, family members urged him to calm down and forget about reprisals. But something had snapped inside the 11-year-old boy.

“I felt that something should happen to the people who did this,” he recalls with bitterness. “And I felt that I should be the one to do something to them.

“I felt that had my father, my grandfathers, if all these people had been more aggressive in the past, my brother wouldn’t be going into the ground. It was an anger I had never experienced before.”

Ben Chaney’s cynicism grew when the celebrated case finally came to trial. Mississippi officials, reluctant to offend white voters, had announced that they would not be able to prosecute the murders because there were no witnesses. When the U.S. government later decided to pursue convictions under federal law, the results were decidedly mixed.

Originally, 19 men were indicted for depriving the three victims of their civil rights, including Rainey and his deputy, Price. But only eight were convicted and Judge William Harold Cox, a stubborn segregationist, handed out sentences ranging from three to 10 years.

“They killed one nigger, one Jew and a white man,” Cox later explained. “I gave them all what I thought they deserved.”

The Last Straw

The 1964 killings had been the last straw for many black activists, and by the end of the year they angrily abandoned the policies of nonviolent resistance. Soon, more militant black leaders began dominating the civil rights movement, and they insisted that whites relinquish positions of power and influence. When the verdicts in the Mississippi case came down, blacks and whites who once worked together were going separate ways.

By that time, Ben’s life also had undergone a radical change. The Goodmans, concerned for the Chaneys’ safety, offered to help them relocate in New York City. They would help the family find housing and promised a scholarship for Ben at the progressive Walden school.

The Chaneys accepted and moved to Manhattan in 1965. It was a chance to start clean. But the memory of James Chaney would continue to haunt his younger brother.

“In New York, it was a whole new world,” says Ben. “I felt secure living in an integrated building, but there was still poverty. I wanted to be rich. I wanted to live in that world where you get off the elevator and you’re right there in your living room.”

Although he was a bright student, Ben lagged behind his rich white classmates. Teachers remembered that he always seemed to be under great pressure. Looking back, Carolyn Goodman wonders whether she did the right thing in bringing the Chaneys to New York. Although safety was the main concern, she said the boy seemed disoriented by the sudden change.

“Ben did have a hard time because he was thrust into a world he never made or didn’t know. I think that was very difficult for him. We’d heard that he was really struggling.”

Black Militants

Soon, Chaney began spending time with a group of black militants in Harlem. His brother had become a martyr in civil rights circles, and the boy felt pressured to live up to his example.

“I think I became a product of change,” he says sadly. “As the movement changed, black people went from nonviolence to become more aggressive, more militant. And I changed also. I tried to be political, but I guess you could say I was a victim of propaganda.”

In 1970, Chaney hooked up with Lindsay Lee Thompson, a former black Vietnam veteran. Thompson invited him and another man to drive down to Florida, ostensibly to visit Thompson’s mother. On April 24, the trio began a journey that eventually turned into a criminal rampage. When it was over three weeks later, four white people had been randomly shot to death. Chaney was arrested.

At the trial, Chaney’s lawyers argued that Thompson had done all the shootings and that Ben, who had driven the car, had no idea what he had gotten himself into. They argued that Thompson had taunted the boy, suggesting that his brother’s death should be avenged.

Although he was never accused of pulling the trigger, Ben served 13 years for a crime he said he didn’t commit. To this day, he is embittered that the white men who killed his brother did less time, and that others who were implicated in the crime walked free.

“I just can’t forget that,” he says. “For me, this whole story never really came to an end. It just kept coming back all the time.”

Today, Ben Chaney is a paralegal working in the office of veteran civil rights activist Ramsey Clark. He also heads a foundation in his brother’s memory that is dedicated to sponsoring voter registration drives in the South and New York City.

A slight man with sad and tired eyes, Chaney says prison has washed him clean. These days, he is trying to focus on the positive things that came out of Freedom Summer so long ago.

“All of us, blacks and whites, especially blacks and Jews, had a special time when we worked together,” says Chaney. “But we destroyed that bond. Somehow we have to come back together again, we have to get back to that point.”

Were the deaths of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney worth it all?

Ben Chaney’s quiet answer recalls a time when everything seemed possible--and good intentions could change the world.

“Yes, I think it was worth it,” he says. “After everything that’s happened in this country, I still want to believe that the best is yet to come.”