Three Missing Civil Rights Workers in 1964 Mississippi

On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers traveling in Mississippi disappeared. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been working in the state as part of efforts by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to do civil rights work and help register African-Americans to vote.

Goodman and Schwerner had originally traveled from New York and were working with Chaney, a young black man who lived in Mississippi. One afternoon, after the three were driving back from investigating a church burning, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price arrested them.  The sheriff arrested the driver Chaney for speeding, and he arrested the passengers for “investigation.”

The sheriff took the three men to jail, where they were booked by 4:00 p.m.  Late at night after almost seven hours at the jail, the three were released.  Then, they disappeared.

Disappearance & Discovery

The disappearance of the three men created a national outcry, focusing attention on what was going on in many places in the South. Others previously had disappeared and been murdered. But this case likely garnered more attention because two of the civil rights workers were white.

Below is a 1964 NBC News Special Report about the disappearance that occurred during Freedom Summer. The show aired on television while the men were missing and before their bodies were found. As you can see, after the three disappeared, some white officials argued that the missing men were pulling a publicity stunt.

More than a month later on August 4, 1964, FBI officials found the remains of the three men buried in an earthen well. Goodman and Schwerner were each shot in the heart, while Chaney had been beaten and shot several times.

Investigators concluded that after authorities released the three civil rights workers from jail, KKK members pulled over the car. Then, the KKK members shot and killed the three men and also beat the African-American Chaney.

The murders had been planned and organized while the three men were held in jail.  And, in fact, the KKK had been tracking Schwerner’s activities in the South for some time. Here is a shorter recent video about the case and the murders.

The country focused its attention on the murder, the investigation, and numerous other instances of violence during Freedom Summer. This national attention energized the civil rights movement, and helped bring about some changes.

“Here’s to the State of Mississippi”

The investigation into the case also affected pop culture. For example, the crime inspired a fictionalized account of the events in the movie Mississippi Burning (1988), starring Gene Hackman.

The murders also inspired singer-songwriter Phil Ochs to write one of his most controversial songs, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” Ochs came up with the idea for the song while he was traveling through Mississippi to promote voting registration with the Mississippi Caravan of Music.

During that trip, Ochs encountered threats firsthand and also learned about the discovery of the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. As a result, Ochs wrote one of his most scathing songs, indicting the state of Mississippi as a proxy for the perpetrators of racial violence.

Oh, here’s to the land
You’ve torn out the heart of,
Mississippi find yourself
Another country to be part of.

According to Michael Schumacher’s excellent 1996 biography of Ochs, There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs, some of Ochs’s friends criticized the song for attacking Mississippi so directly. They told Ochs that he was wrong to single out a single state because racism flowed across all states, including ones in the North.

Also, some blacks in Mississippi reminded Ochs that they were a part of Mississippi too. But Ochs believed it was his obligation to report what he saw.

Quest for Justice

While the murders motivated many people to work for change, it took longer for the state of Mississippi to accomplish some individual justice. In 1967 a federal court jury convicted several men of conspiracy for their involvement in the murders.  But Mississippi did not convict anyone for the crime until June 21, 2005 — the 41st anniversary of the day the three young men disappeared.

On that date in 2005, a Mississippi jury convicted white supremacist Edgar Ray Killen of three counts of manslaughter. Killen was sentenced to sixty years in prison.

Although authorities did not believe Killen did the actual killing, they thought he was a significant organizer of the murders. It had been the policy of the KKK for organizers and leaders to avoid actual killing.

The 88-year-old man lost his appeal in November 2013.  He subsequently has said little about the murders.

It is too bad that Phil Ochs, who passed away in 1976, was not around to see the conviction. I wonder what type of songs Ochs would write if he were still alive. And I also wonder what the three brave men who were killed in 1964 would think of our country today.

Photo of FBI poster via public domain.

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