Fifty two years ago tonight, three young men were murdered by a group of white Mississippians in the Ku Klux Klan. Among the men complicit in this crime were members of the Neshoba County Sheriff’s office and the Philadelphia (Mississippi) Police Department.
This was a mere six years before I was born. Many people of my generation are familiar with this event through the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, although the film doesn’t even cover everything that happened that awful summer.
The reason the three civil rights workers (James Earl Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman) were working in Mississippi that summer was because the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) was trying to register voters and assist people to pass the tests required for voting in the state. The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, one of the most radical and violent branches of the KKK, was incensed by this and wanted to harm members of CORE. So in order to lure CORE to Neshoba County (where local law enforcement was either involved in the Klan or at least willing to look the other way), the White Knights burned down a black church where the previous month Chaney and Schwerner had spoken about setting up a “Freedom School” to assist voters. The three men went to Neshoba County to investigate the burning down of the church. They knew they were heading into dangerous territory, as they warned their compatriots in Meridian to start looking for them if they didn’t hear from them by 4 PM that day.
By the time 5 PM rolled around their friends in Jackson and Meridian still had not heard from them, and they knew something was wrong. The FBI office in Meridian began an investigation, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent in over 100 more Federal agents from New Orleans to assist. Two of the key FBI agents in the investigation were John Proctor (who was the basis for Gene Hackman’s character in Mississippi Burning) and Joseph Sullivan (the basis for Willem Dafoe’s character in the same film). President Johnson put a lot of pressure on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to do a real investigation, and he put the power of the Federal government behind it. Eventually hundreds of Navy personnel from Naval Air Station Meridian, including Navy divers, assisted in the searches for the men. The burned-out car the men had been riding in was found by two local Native Americans the day the FBI first arrived. It was this car that led to the case being known as Mississippi Burning, or MIBURN for short.
Eventually, the bodies of the three men were found, about a month and a half later, buried in an earthen dam. There was evidence in Andrew Goodman’s autopsy that he was still alive when he was buried.
To give you an idea of just how horrible things were for African-Americans in a place like Mississippi, let me put it in perspective for you. While looking for the bodies of the three men, searchers found the corpses of eight other African-Americans, of whom only three could be identified: Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, two 19-year-old black men who had disappeared in May 1964 while hitchhiking in Meadville; and Herbert Orsby, a 14-year-old black tennager from New Orleans who had been visiting his grandparents in Canton.
Moore and Dee had been kidnapped by the Klan on May 2, 1964. After being whipped for more than half an hour, the two men were put into the trunk of a car and driven across the Mississippi River to Louisiana. There the Klansmen took the two men out of the trunk. Dee was chained to an engine block, and then the Klansmen took him on a boat out onto the Mississippi River, where they threw him in, very much still alive. Moore watched the whole thing from shore, and then was himself chained to a railroad tie and scrap iron, and then he was thrown in as well.
These things didn’t happen long ago, in the 19th century. They happened in the 20th century, in the lifetimes of both of my parents, who moved to Alabama from Massachusetts in 1967, a mere three years after these events. That is horrifying. And as far as we have come as a society, we still have a long way to go, as evidenced by the racist campaign of Donald Trump and his appalling rhetoric, especially among white nationalists and others who are avowedly racist. The racism at his rallies is out in the open for all to see. And Trump frequently repeats and retweets racist things in social media that come from white supremacists. It’s not an aberration. It’s a pattern.
On the 41st anniversary of the crime, June 21st, 2005, Edgar Ray Killen was found guilty in state court of three counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison. In his first trial, way back in 1966, Killen’s jury had deadlocked 11 to 1 on a guilty verdict. As the story goes, the lone holdout said that she couldn’t convict him because… he was a preacher. My favorite kind of Christians are the ones who think a “man of God” and other “good Christians” shouldn’t be held accountable for their crimes. Ironic that people in the US are always giving the fundamentalist Muslims a lot of scrutiny while their fundie Christian counterparts get a free pass. I don’t know about you, but in my mind I don’t think Jesus would approve of the sorts of things Preacher Killen was doing.
So yeah, we have gone from a country where I have actually heard people (all of them white, of course) say that we had moved beyond racism because we elected a black President, to a country where the prospective candidate of a major political party is so racist that even black members of the GOP are having trouble supporting him.
Good God, how did we get here? Have we not learned anything?
Well, now I am depressing myself. I guess I will have to write about something else in my next post.