Black in Time: Missing Activists

Published August 16, 2010

On August 4, 1964, bodies of the missing civil rights activists, James Chaney, Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, and Andrew “Andy” Goodman were found in Mississippi.

The men had traveled to a segregated Mississippi on June 20, 1964, on behalf of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to help integrate schools and investigate the torching of a church designated to be one of Mississippi's first Freedom schools.  The men went missing on June 21 after being arrested by the local Sheriff and then released down a dirt road in the middle of the night. These men were sons, teachers, friends, and they believed firmly in the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The road to Mississippi must have been a quiet one… threats were already made, the fear that they would end up like Emmitt Till or Medgar Evers was a very real scenario that must have played out a dozen times. One might assume that it was calculating to include two white men on the trip, as an insurance policy since the murder of a White man was still illegal in Mississippi. Time soon proved that a plan and prayer were not enough to keep these men alive.

The missing boys attracted national attention, and as a result, the FBI sent 200 men to Mississippi to set up a field office to locate the missing men. The massive investigation into the disappearance of the civil rights workers, code-named MIBURN, for Mississippi Burning, began on June 23. Federal agents quickly retrieved the workers' burned station wagon in a nearby swamp. Over 200 FBI agents combed the woods and swamps searching for the bodies while an entire country feared the worst. The FBI finally singled out one of the Klansman who took part in the murder and offered him immunity in exchange for information. He implicated over a dozen or so others in the murder of the three civil rights activists.  He confessed their intent was to torture Chaney while the others watched, but their brutality had gone too far and Chaney was killed, forcing them to kill Goodman and Schwerner. On August 4, his admission led the FBI to the remains of the young men in an earthen damn on the property of another Klansmen.

An autopsy report revealed that Chaney, the only African American in the group, suffered several broken bones, including an arm, leg, and several ribs. His fingers had been cut off and he suffered massive injuries to the groin area. His nose had been broken and forced into his brain, killing him long before three bullets tore through his chest.

On December 4, nineteen men, including Deputy Price, were indicted by the U.S. Justice Department for violating the civil rights of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney (charging the suspects with civil rights violations was the only way to give the federal government jurisdiction in the case). After nearly three years of legal wrangling, nineteen men went on trial in Jackson, Mississippi for attempting to deprive the men of their civil rights. On October 27, 1967, an all-white jury found seven of the men guilty, including Price and KKK Imperial Wizard Bowers. Nine were acquitted, and the jury deadlocked on three others.

Judge Cox sentenced the men to prison terms ranging from three to 10 years. After sentencing, he said, "They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them what I thought they deserved." None of the convicted men served more than six years behind bars.

Written by Ruqaiyah Najja, BET News

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