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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

June 15, 1989|JOSH GETLIN | 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.

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