The Freedom Summer Murders

In 1964, almost 10 years after the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, racial violence in Philadelphia, Mississippi, led to three civil rights activists paying the ultimate price in their pursuit of social justice. The murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were irrefutable testimony to the resistance to racial equality and integration that lingered in Southern states.

In an effort to eliminate Schwerner and repress his activism within the community, two dozen armed Klansmen arrived at Mount Zion Methodist Church, where they believed Schwerner would be. Not finding him there, the Klansmen beat several members of the congregation and burned the church. These violent acts brought Schwerner back to Philadelphia. This time, two other members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) – Goodman and Chaney – came with him.

While driving back to the CORE office in Meridian, Mississippi, from the site of the church burning, the three men were stopped by county deputy sheriff and Ku Klux Klan member Cecil Price. Price threw them in the Neshoba County Jail under the suspicion of arson and denied their right to make a phone call. Following their release, the three activists were pursued by Price and several members of the KKK who shot them to death at close range and buried their bodies in an earthen dam a few miles from Mount Zion Methodist Church.

The disappearance of the three men was initially labeled a missing persons case, but grew into an extensive FBI investigation. On December 4, nineteen men, including Price, were indicted by the federal government for civil rights violations against Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney. Following three years of legal dispute, on October 27, 1967, an all-white jury found Price and six other men guilty. The jury acquitted nine others and was deadlocked on three more. None of the accused spent more than six years in prison. This was the first time anyone in the state had been convicted on civil rights violations.

In 2005, on the 41st anniversary of the three murders, Edgar Ray Killen – a former Klansman and Baptist preacher – was charged by the state of Mississippi on three counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison. He was 79 years old. He died in prison at age 92 in 2018, four days before the U.S. Civil Rights Trail was launched on the 89th birthday of Dr. King. Killen was the last person serving time for a civil rights era death.

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