On June 21, the hoopla over Paula Deen’s termination by the Food Network obscured the anniversary of a national tragedy.
On June 21, 1964, members of the Ku
Klux Klan murdered three Civil Rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew
Goodman and Michael Schwerner — in Nashoba County, Miss.
Chaney was 20, Goodman was 21 and
Schwerner 24. They were kids, really, incredibly brave and principled
kids, who put their lives on the line for their beliefs and lost in a
most horrific fashion.
The three young men were working in
Mississippi as part of Freedom Summer 1964, which drew college-age kids
from all over the United States to what was described as “the most
totalitarian state in the country.”
Hatred ruled in Mississippi, and
anyone who dared to raise his voice against it faced severe retribution.
The KKK worked in league with law enforcement, particularly in Nashoba
County, to intimidate civil rights workers and black citizens.
Schwerner had successfully organized a black boycott of white-owned businesses and was registering black citizens to vote.
The Klan wanted Schwerner stopped.
On the night of June 16, 1964, the Klan went to Mount Zion Church in the
mistaken belief Schwerner would be there. When they learned he wasn’t,
the Klan burned the church and beat members of the black congregation.
The night of June 21, Chaney,
Goodman and Schwerner were arrested by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price for
suspicion of arson in the church fire. Chaney and Schwerner were in Ohio
on June 16 and returned to Mississippi with Goodman after they heard of
the fire and subsequent beatings of Mount Zion members.
Once he had the civil rights workers
in custody, Price alerted Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen, who began
assembling Klan members. Price held the young men for seven hours,
denied Schwerner’s request for a phone call, then released them into the
The young men, with Chaney driving,
headed for the relative safety of Meridian, Miss. Price and the Klan
caught up with them, put the men in Price’s car, and drove them to a
dirt road where they were beaten and shot to death. Their bodies were
buried in an earthen dam on the farm of Olen Burrage, where they lay
until Aug. 4.
(The national outrage over the
murders led to the enactment in 1965 of the Voting Rights Act, which was
gutted by the Supreme Court this week.)
The first trial was held in 1967 with Judge William Cox
presiding. Cecil Price got six years
and served four. Cox used the “n word,” referring to James Chaney, in
justifying the lenient sentence.
It took longer to bring Edgar Ray
Killen to justice. On June 21, 2005, 41 years to the day after the
killings, Killen was sentenced to 60 years in prison — 20 years for each
of the young men’s lives.
June 21 remains a dark day in
memory. On that day, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner drew on what is best
in humanity only to be destroyed by what is worst in us.
We shouldn’t forget that.
Jan Hearne is the Press
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