- Ben Chaneybrother of James Chaney, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1964.
- David Goodmanbrother of Andrew Goodman, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1964.
- Micki Dickoffco-director of Neshoba: The Price of Freedom. The film opens tonight in New York at Cinema Village.
- Jerry Mitchellaward-winning investigative reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.
- Bruce Watsonauthor of the new book Freedom Summer: The Savage Season that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy.
As the Justice Department announces it has closed nearly half of its investigations into unresolved killings from the civil rights era, we look back at the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the subject of the new documentary Neshoba: The Price of Freedom. Although dozens of white men are believed to have been involved in the murders and cover-up, only one man, a Baptist preacher named Edgar Ray Killen, is behind bars today. Four suspects are still alive in the case. We play excerpts of Neshoba and speak with its co-director, Micki Dickoff. We’re also joined by the brothers of two of the victims, Ben Chaney and David Goodman. And we speak with award-winning Mississippi-based journalist Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger, who’s spent the past twenty years investigating unresolved civil rights murder cases, as well as Bruce Watson, author of the new book Freedom Summer: The Savage Season that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: The Department of Justice recently announced FBI agents have closed nearly half of the department’s 122 investigations into unresolved killings from the civil rights era. For the first time, the Justice Department has made public a list of victims and the status of the investigations.
Among the sixty-two cases still open is the notorious murder of three civil rights activists in Mississippi in June 1964. The Mississippi Burning case is the subject of a new documentary titled Neshoba: The Price of Freedom. It opens tonight in New York at Cinema Village.
REPORTER: About 200 civil rights workers have arrived in Mississippi to begin a summer-long campaign. They were trained for it on a college campus in Ohio. This week, another group of volunteers is being taught what to expect in Mississippi and how to cope with it.
REPORTER: They are taught how nonviolently to protect themselves when attacked.
JAMES FOREMAN, SNCC: We’re going down there. We’re trying to face a real situation that will occur. Namely, there will be a mob at the courthouse. We also want the white students who are playing the mob to get used to saying things, calling out epithets, calling people “niggers” and “nigger lovers.”
REPORTER: There is some mystery and some fear concerning three of the civil rights workers, two whites from New York City and a Negro from Mississippi. Police say they arrested the three men for speeding yesterday, but released them after they posted bond. They have not been heard from since.
NEWS ANCHOR: First, the known facts. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner went to Mississippi to help register Negroes as voters. Chaney, a twenty-year-old Mississippian, was a veteran of the civil rights movement in his home state. He assisted in the training classes. Goodman, twenty, a New York college student, had never participated in the civil rights movement, but a friend says Goodman could never understand how some people could be so lacking in compassion. Schwerner, twenty-four, a seasoned New York social worker, left Mississippi where he had worked since January, to assist in the training school at Oxford, Ohio.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The film Neshoba goes on to document the role local Mississippi law enforcement agents and the Ku Klux Klan played in the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
JOHN DOAR, Assistant Attorney General: Three civil rights workers were missing, and they had last been seen going up to investigate a church burning in Neshoba County.
NEWS ANCHOR: It’s thirty-five miles from Meridian to Philadelphia, then twelve miles to Longdale, where the church had been burned. That afternoon, the three were seen at the church site and at the home of its lay leader. About 2:30 they headed west toward Philadelphia.
JIM INGRAM, retired FBI agent: Chaney was outside changing the tire. They had a flat. And there was Price. And when they pulled up, he said, “I’m arresting Chaney for speeding; Schwerner and Goodman, for investigation.”
JOHN DOAR: Cecil Price, deputy sheriff, saw them and stopped them, and he takes them into the jail. So, somehow, some way, the message gets out to the Klan, and then they have to organize.
JERRY MITCHELL, Clarion-Ledger: Edgar Ray Killen began to kind of coordinate things that night, kind of gathered a group of guys, had one of them go get gloves so they wouldn’t have fingerprints, told them the guys they wanted were there in the jail.
NEWS ANCHOR: By 10:00, Price says he had located a justice of the peace who fined the trio $20. Price tells what happened then.
DEPUTY CECIL PRICE: They paid the fine, and I released them. That’s the last time we saw any of them.
JOHN DOAR: The boys were driving back from the county jail, and they started down the road toward Meridian, and they were stopped by a police car. And there would be this group of Klan people.
JERRY MITCHELL: They arrested them and put them in Price’s car.
JOHN DOAR: Then turned right into a gravel, rural road.
JERRY MITCHELL: And Alton Wayne Roberts grabbed Schwerner, and he said to him, “Are you that 'n-word' lover?” And Schwerner said, “Sir, I understand how you feel.” And, bam, shot him, grabbed Goodman. Goodman didn’t even get a word out. Shot Goodman. Chaney, by this point, obviously realizing what’s going down, took off. We know he was shot by several people. They also apparently beat him.
JUAN GONZALEZ: An excerpt from the new documentary Neshoba: The Price of Freedom. The film chronicles the forty-year struggle to hold someone accountable for the killings. Although dozens of white men are believed to have been involved in the murders and cover-up, only one man, a Baptist preacher named Edgar Ray Killen, is behind bars today. Killen began serving his sentence in 2005, forty-one years after the killings. Four suspects are still alive in the case.
AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour looking back at the Mississippi Burning killings and Freedom Summer. We’re joined by five guests from around the country, including brothers of two of the civil rights activists murdered. Here in New York, Ben Chaney is with us. He was twelve years old when the body of his brother James was found. David Goodman is also with us. He’s the younger brother of Andrew Goodman. And we’re joined by filmmaker Micki Dickoff, who co-directed Neshoba: The Price of Freedom. With us in Jackson, Mississippi, the award-winning journalist Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger. He’s spent the past twenty years investigating unresolved civil rights murder cases. And in Chicopee, Massachusetts, is Bruce Watson, author of the new book Freedom Summer: The Savage Season that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy.
We’ll break and then begin the conversation. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: As we go back to a clip of the new documentary Neshoba, that is opening tonight at Cinema Village here in New York City, this features the footage of the funeral for James Chaney. It was August of 1964. It shows a young Ben Chaney crying as he sings “We Shall Overcome” and CORE field secretary Dave Dennis is speaking.
CROWD: [singing] We shall overcome! We shall overcome! We shall overcome some day!
DAVE DENNIS, Congress of Racial Equality: You see, I know what’s going to happen. I feel it deep in my heart. When they find the people who killed those guys in Neshoba County, you’ve got to come back to the state of Mississippi and have a jury of their cousins, their aunts and their uncles. And I know what they’re going to say: “Not guilty.” I’m tired of that!
I had been asked by some people to do this eulogy, but keep it quiet. When I looked out there and saw little Ben, it didn’t make sense to me.
Don’t bow down anymore! Hold your heads up! We want our freedom now! I don’t want to have to go to another memorial! Tired of funerals! Tired of it! Got to stand up!
AMY GOODMAN: That was Dave Dennis at the funeral of James Chaney. It was the beginning of August, just after their bodies had been dredged up — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner. And we’re joined by two of their brothers: Ben Chaney and [David] Goodman.
Ben, well, that was many years ago. There you were, a little boy. Talk about that day and what has happened since.
BEN CHANEY: That was a very sad time. I guess it was a very painful time also. It was my first experience with death, knowing that death was final. And I guess, since forty-six years ago that occurred — like four years from the fiftieth anniversary of that event — so a lot has happened in forty-six years. There’s been a lot of changes made. There’s been a lot of growing in this country that has taken place in forty-six years. But at the same time, there’s been some things that remain the same. America, I feel, still needs to have a serious discussion about race. And for some particular reason, we’re unable to do that. And we had to, fifty years from now.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, we got a call from Bill Moyers’ office last night, because he heard we were doing this interview. And he says he remembers this time. Right? It was, I think, August 5th —-
BEN CHANEY: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: —- 1964. He was working for Lyndon Johnson. And he was the one who received the call in the White House that your brother, James Chaney, that Andrew Goodman, David, your brother, that Michael Schwerner, that the bodies had been found. Andrew, how old were you — David, how old were you?
DAVID GOODMAN: I was seventeen years old at the time. And it was an experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. A personal loss, but it was also an astonishing realization of what goes on in the world and the country is not necessarily what appears to go on. And I learned a lot in a unusual kind of way about all the things that I learned, all the things that I was told was right, didn’t happen in this case. And when I look back at it, I realize how naive I was about what goes on in the world and that there are people in places that call themselves Americans and Christians and then kill people and do un-American things. It was a shock to me. And how I was brought up was something that I just never realized.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the amazing thing was that your brother had gone down as part of Freedom Summer, along with hundreds of other folks, and this was the first — actually the first day of Freedom Summer when they were abducted. What do you recall what he told you before he left and what he was doing in Mississippi?
DAVID GOODMAN: Well, actually, there was a training session in Ohio that, what, about 700 young people went to, mainly college students. And something happened before they were intending to go to Mississippi, Arkansas, the various places, that a church was burned down. So they went to investigate it. James Chaney and Michael Schwerner had been in Mississippi, had set up offices there for CORE and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And my brother was a volunteer, and they were looking for volunteers, and he volunteered to go with them and investigate it. So this was actually a couple days before the intention of the start of the Mississippi Summer, Freedom Summer.
BEN CHANEY: I think it was interesting, because Andy was going to be in charge of the Neshoba County Freedom School. He was going to be working out of that church. And that’s one reason why he was there, you know? Very interesting.
AMY GOODMAN: So, your brother, James —-
BEN CHANEY: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: —- he was the African American civil rights worker. Andrew and Michael were white civil rights workers. How scared was James? And where did you grow up? Where did James grow up?
BEN CHANEY: We grew up in Meridian, which is like forty-some miles from Philadelphia. How scared was Jay? I don’t know how scared Jay was. He used to travel into Neshoba County at night at high speeds. He used to go into those areas. His job was to find a places for Freedom Schools. So he would go to the outlying areas where — heavy Klan-concentrated areas. Cecil Price chased him a few times during that period. So, how scared was he? I believe that when you’re twenty, twenty-one years old, you don’t — there’s very little fear you have. I think that — I think he understood the danger. I think Mickey understood the danger. Probably they both understood the danger much more than Andy did. But how scared were they? I don’t believe that they had any fear.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, if you can, talk a little bit about what life was like at the time, because I think most Americans are not aware, when we talk about sixty still unsolved cases of murders during the civil rights era in the South, what the level of terror was as more and more African Americans began to demand their right to vote and the response that they got from the white society.
BEN CHANEY: Well, in some parts of the country, it was at — people were at war. That was very oppressive. The atmosphere of fear, you know, was strong in the air. It was very strong. And you had the Klan, that would carry out this fear. And you had the state government’s, like, agencies, like the Sovereign Commission, that would reinforce it. They legislated fear. They legislated discrimination. They enforced it through the laws of the state. So, people, civil rights workers, and those who supported civil rights workers, had very little recourse. There was no one to protect them, but yet and still, they still did the work.
You know, I remember growing up in Mississippi at one point. My brother used to take me to get haircuts. And we used to have to get off the sidewalk when white people was coming down the sidewalk. You know, that’s how — it was terrorizing there, Mississippi was, in that period. So fear was really deep. But I think when you’re young and you’re strong and you’re healthy, I don’t think that you — I don’t think those young people who was involved in the civil rights movement, the volunteers who went to Mississippi, those that were in Mississippi that was working, they understood the danger, but I believe that, deep down inside, they believed that they were so smart, so courageous, so strong, they could avoid the real danger.
AMY GOODMAN: Micki Dickoff, why did you decide to do this film, Neshoba: The Price of Freedom?
MICKI DICKOFF: In 1964, I was seventeen years old, and I had wanted to go to Mississippi to register voters. And my father, who grew up in Mississippi in a small town in the Mississippi Delta, and the only Jewish family in town, said, “You’re not going.” Six weeks later, when those kids’ bodies were found, it devastated me and haunted me my whole life and really helped shaped my politics and my art. I didn’t know that thirty-five years later I was going to get a phone call from Ben Chaney, who said, “Are you interested in making a film about these murders?” And I flew to New York and met Ben. And took us a little bit longer than — from 1999. We didn’t really start shooting the film 'til 2004. But getting close to Ben and getting close to Carolyn Goodman changed my life. And I thought it was extremely important that this story get told — the truth of this story get told.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, most Americans are familiar with the story, in a way, from Mississippi Burning, but you centered a lot of the film on the actual trial of the only person so far found guilty of being involved in these killings. And you were also able to capture this — to talk to the jurors, as well. Talk about that experience and how open people were to talking with you about such a deep wound in the history of Mississippi.
MICKI DICKOFF: Well, let me just say, when we started shooting this film in 2004, the fortieth anniversary, we had no idea that ten months later Edgar Ray Killen would get indicted. We actually thought we were going to make a film to try to embarrass the state of Mississippi to finally do the right thing. We actually started out following a group of thirty people from the Philadelphia Coalition, fifteen whites and fifteen blacks, who, for the first time in forty years, decided to talk about this case and ask for some kind of justice. So we started to follow them.
Also, I was very close to the families of the victims. And Carolyn Goodman was in her upper-eighties. Fannie Lee Chaney was in ill health and in her eighties. And if something was going to get done, in terms of some sense of justice, because obviously justice could never bring back those kids, that we wanted to do something about that.
The people in town were fairly open to us, actually. And we went into very different parts of Neshoba County to really get a cross-section of the feelings. And we really wanted to get at the truth, because we really felt that the truth had been shoved under the rug. And how could these three murders happen, everybody know who did it, and nobody be held accountable?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let's go to Jerry Mitchell now, a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. You really helped Edgar Ray Killen get indicted. Talk about who he was, who he is.
JERRY MITCHELL: Well, Edgar Ray Killen was, as mentioned before, a Baptist preacher, and he was kind of the organizer, Klan organizer. And so, that day, what happened is, after the three civil rights workers were arrested, he was basically contacted. Cecil Price put out word to Billy Wayne Posey, who in turn got word to Edgar Ray Killen, that they were in jail, the civil rights workers were in jail, and they only had a little bit of time, so they needed to act now. And so, Killen then drove down to Meridian, Mississippi, gathered up a bunch of Klansmen, and they drove back to Neshoba County, to Philadelphia, Mississippi. And there, they waited basically for the civil rights workers to leave jail. It was all part of the plan, basically. And once they were released, you know, chased them down and, of course, caught them and killed them, and buried their bodies in a dam. So, Killen was very much kind of the organizer of that and made it happen.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Jerry Mitchell, in terms of the — why it took so long for anyone to be brought to justice in this case, how long were you writing about it before there was an indictment at least of Killen?
JERRY MITCHELL: Actually, I started writing about this case back in 1989. That’s when I first began. It was the first case I wrote about, began writing about what evidence still existed, wrote about the transcripts still existing, and began talking to and interviewing witnesses, such as Delmar Dennis and others, who unfortunately died, by the way, and of course did not testify in Killen’s trial. So I began writing about it back then. And, of course, what helped is the fact that I also began writing about the Medgar Evers case. That case got reopened, got reprosecuted. Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in 1994. Came back, after a series of other convictions, came back to the case, because I found out that Sam Bowers had bragged that, while he was convicted, he was happy about it, because the main instigator of the entire affair walked out of the courtroom a free man. And he was referring to Edgar Ray Killen. And that was in — my story on that appeared in 1998. And then you see how much later it was even after that. So it just —- it took -—
AMY GOODMAN: It still took more than six years.
JERRY MITCHELL: — quite a bit of prodding and — yeah, exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip —-
JERRY MITCHELL: Took quite a bit of prodding.
AMY GOODMAN: —- from the film Neshoba. During the trial, Edgar Ray Killen’s attorney questioned former Klansman Mike Hatcher.
MITCH MORAN: Who swore you in that night, that day, night, whatever it was?
MIKE HATCHER: Edgar Ray Killen, preacher, did.
MITCH MORAN: Did you ever hear any talk of there being an elimination of the civil rights workers?
MIKE HATCHER: Yes, I heard it discussed, and I didn’t know the Klan would ever do anything like that, me being a police officer.
MITCH MORAN: You stated that Edgar called you out and said, “We got rid of the civil rights workers.” Is that correct?
MIKE HATCHER: That’s correct.
MITCH MORAN: What else did he say?
MIKE HATCHER: He said we wouldn’t have no more trouble…
EDGAR RAY KILLEN: He never did say that I told him I did, but said I told him, “We got rid of them,” of which he is a bald-faced liar there.
MIKE HATCHER: And he told me that he was at the funeral home, signed the book, made sure he talked to people in front and rear of it, and that was his alibi.
EDGAR RAY KILLEN: And my estimate was at that time that 99 percent of the people wish they had been the ones that got them. But there again, since I didn’t do it, I never did get to play the hero and say, “Hey, I did it.” No, no way. If those three had stayed at home where they belonged, they’d have never found any harm here.
AMY GOODMAN: And that last voice was Edgar Ray Killen’s. These are some excerpts from the closing arguments in the Edgar Ray Killen case.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JIM HOOD: These acts were not sanctioned by God. They were sanctioned by that man right there. By that defendant.
You know, there’s an old saying in the South, you know you’ve done a day’s work when you make a preacher cuss. Well, I figure I did a pretty good day’s work on that day to make him cuss, so…
EDGAR RAY KILLEN: I had mentioned to you here that I had lost my emotions, but he brought a little bit back. When he got a little further than I could reach him, I almost got out of the wheelchair, and my attorneys caught me. I’m trying to stay away from the word “hatred,” but the man doesn’t have any morals.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JIM HOOD: It’s a cowardly act. That was a mob that murdered those young men down there that night. And that coward is still sitting right here in this courtroom. He wants one of you to be weak and not do your duty to find him guilty of this crime.
MITCH MORAN: If we don’t know who killed him, how do we know Edgar’s the one that planned it and orchestrated it? The real crime was the fact that he was not prosecuted in 1964.
JAMES McINTYRE: This is nothing but stirring a simmering pot of hate for profit and cultural sluggishness. That’s all this case is for. Look at all these folks sitting out here. This is nothing but a show to try to put the state of Mississippi on trial, again.
MARK DUNCAN: Edgar Ray Killen directed others to commit this crime, and that’s what makes him equally guilty as them. Is a Neshoba County jury going to tell the rest of the world that we are not going to let Edgar Ray Killen get away with murder anymore?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Those are excerpts from the closing arguments in the murder trial of Edgar Ray Killen. And I’d like to ask Jerry Mitchell, you have been crusading around these murders now for several years, for decades now — what has been the response in Mississippi of your — the readers of the Clarion-Ledger and of your neighbors and friends to your efforts to uncover the truth?
JERRY MITCHELL: Well, it’s been mixed. I mean, the reactions have been mixed. I’ve had some people who are obviously happy about it, glad to see justice come, even after all these years. And then, of course, I’ve had others who, you know, have cursed me or told me to leave it alone or even threatened me. I’ve had people threaten me. So it’s been kind of a mixed bag.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And how about within the newspaper itself? Because, obviously, before you were reporting there, back in the '60s, the Clarion-Ledger was part —-
JERRY MITCHELL: Right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —- of the infrastructure that allowed — promoted segregation and backed some of these efforts. What's been the response in the newspaper?
JERRY MITCHELL: Well, actually, within the newspaper itself has been very positive. You’re correct, the newspaper back in the '60s was one of the most racist newspapers in America. But fortunately, that's changed today. We actually have an African American executive editor, so it’s a totally different newspaper than it was back then. But I’ve had complete support, allowing me to kind of pursue these cases, which is amazing when I think about it, that they’ve let me do this for now more than twenty years.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back, and we’ll be bringing in the author of a new book called Freedom Summer — Bruce Watson is joining us from Massachusetts — as well as continue our conversation with our guests Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger
; Ben Chaney, brother of James Chaney; David Goodman, younger brother of Andrew Goodman; and Micki Dickoff, who co-directed Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, that’s opening tonight here in New York.
This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Kim and Reggie Harris singing “Too Many Martyrs,” the song of Phil Ochs. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. And as we played that music, we did what Neshoba: The Price of Freedom did in their film: played the list of the unsolved murders. And it’s a remarkably long list. You can go to our website at democracynow.org to see that.
Our guests are two of the brothers of two of the three civil rights workers whose case became very well known: Ben Chaney and [David] Goodman are our guests, brothers of [Andrew] Goodman and James Chaney. Micki Dickoff is our guest, co-director of Neshoba: The Price of Freedom. And Jerry Mitchell with us, reporter with the Clarion-Ledger.
Before we go to Bruce Watson, I wanted to go back to Jerry Mitchell on that list of the unsolved murders. On that day, as they were dredging up — in the days that they were looking for the three civil rights workers, they were dredging up black body after black body. These are the unsolved murders. Talk about who we don’t know died and who killed them.
JERRY MITCHELL: And that’s part of the problem, is that there’s really never been an attempt to go out and account for these. I mean, it seems every day there seems to be another case that resurfaces around the country — I mean, not just in Mississippi, but around the entire country. And so, that’s why it’s important. There needs to be an accounting. There needs to be, you know, some attempt to come back and document each one of these cases — who was killed and what the circumstances were — even if justice can’t be bought in these cases, because it’s very important. It’s like in Kansas City, there was a case, a civil rights case there that’s now been reopened, a killing that took place in 1970. So it’s — like I said, it’s happening all over the country, because people just haven’t really thought about it, haven’t been aware of it. But there were killings that took place, and people just — you know, people disappeared in places like Mississippi and weren’t heard from anymore.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Jerry Mitchell, Ben Chaney referred a few minutes earlier to the Sovereignty Commission. Could you explain what the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission was and its role in this reign of terror that existed back in the '60s?
JERRY MITCHELL: Well, it was — basically, the Sovereignty Commission was kind of part of the reason Mississippi was kind of a police state in those days. It was created — it was kind of the state's answer to the White Citizens’ Council, kind of a state-authorized White Citizens’ Council. It was headed by the governor, no less, and some of those powerful lawmakers. And basically, they had one arm that was kind of like a propaganda arm that would reach out up north in places, and they would promulgate segregation and say — send black speakers up north, pay them and say, “Tell them how great segregation is and how you want segregation, too.” And then they had this other arm that was kind of a spy arm, where they basically infiltrated civil rights groups and were able to get that information. And they kind of shared all this information with law enforcement across the state. And, of course, unfortunately, a number of these law enforcement in places like we’re talking about — Neshoba County and Meridian — a lot of those guys were Klansmen. So they were literally sharing information with some of these same Klansmen, who of course wound up being involved in the killing of these kids.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to Neshoba. Speaking here is Rita Bender, the widow of Michael Schwerner, and Fannie Lee Chaney, the mother of James and Ben Chaney.
RITA BENDER: This case has gotten the attention it has gotten because two of the three men were white.
FANNIE LEE CHANEY: It is no secret. The world is supposed to know it. If it hadn’t been for Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, my son wouldn’t have been known and wouldn’t have been found today.
RITA BENDER: I think that says a lot about attitudes about race and who’s important and whose mother’s son matters more.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, the film opening tonight. And we are going to Bruce Watson, who has written the book, just out, Freedom Summer: The Savage Season that Made Mississippi Burn and that Made America a Democracy. The significance of this summer, what these three men and so many others died for, Bruce Watson?
BRUCE WATSON: I think it’s important that we put this in the context of the entire summer, as you said. We mentioned briefly that this was part of Freedom Summer, but often the story of Freedom Summer is overshadowed by the murders, and it makes it seem as though the men died in vain. In fact, they were part of an enormous and incredibly inspiring effort in which 700 college students went to Mississippi, went to the dangerous hellhole of Mississippi that summer, to live with black people, to register — to live in their shacks, sit on their porches, talk to them, register them to the vote, when that was possible, and teach in Freedom Schools, hundreds of Freedom — dozens of Freedom Schools, with 2,000 students, teaching them black history, black literature, things that had never been taught in Mississippi. It was a revolutionary effort. Very important not to forget that part of the story.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, Mississippi was the birthplace of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and it had, in essence, an impact on the national debate within the Democratic Party, didn’t it?
BRUCE WATSON: Oh, yes, that was another part of Freedom Summer, was the Freedom Democratic Party, set up as a parallel party, because, of course, only seven percent of African Americans could vote in Mississippi at that time, a shockingly low number, much lower than the rest of the South. So, Bob Moses and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had set up this parallel party to get people who couldn’t go to the courthouse or who were afraid to go to the courthouse to just sign a form and become members.
And then they sent sixty-seven delegates that they chose in their own parallel conventions, they sent them to Atlantic City to the Democratic National Convention, where they challenged the all-white delegation and said, “We are the rightful Democrats from Mississippi.” And they waged a high-profile, nationally televised hearing in which Fannie Lou Hamer gave a stirring speech, saying, “Is this America? Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our phones off the hook because we just want to be decent citizens?” And they made that challenge trying to get seated. And, of course, LBJ was terrified there would be a walk-out, and they quashed the challenge. But they did get the guarantee — the Freedom Democratic Party got the guarantee that there would never again be a segregated delegation seated at a Democratic National Convention, and there never was. So another victory for Freedom Summer.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben, how has this inspired you to do the work you do? In a minute, we want to go back to Edgar Ray Killen, who is alive and has served a couple of years in jail so far.
BEN CHANEY: Well, the inspiration, I think, came knowing that it doesn’t take a lot of people to make a whole lot of change. And that’s a good thing. So what we do is we form coalitions, like with David, and we make change. I think what’s important — I think one thing, one part of the discussion we’re missing here is that what took place in the '60s was not just some group of evil people committing murders. It was sustained, it was sanctioned, by the state government. Otherwise, these murders would not have occurred. And I think we can draw a parallel to the Sovereign Commission in Mississippi to the COINTELPRO that was in the late ’60s and early ’70s, you know? People died as a result of J. Edgar Hoover. And I think that — I think we need to think about America, so that this thing doesn't happen. It could happen again. So it does happen again on no level, we need to have, again, a serious discussion about race.
AMY GOODMAN: Micki, how did you get Edgar Ray Killen to talk so much?
MICKI DICKOFF: When he got indicted, there was a window of opportunity where we were offered one interview in his lawyer’s office. We, of course, took that interview. And the parameters were, you can’t talk about the Klan, you can’t talk about the murders, you can’t talk about anything. And basically, it was about a two-hour interview with him saying how innocent he was. Now, filmmakers, journalists, reporters have tried to get to him for forty years. And, of course, he never let that happen, because he’s got an ego that’s so tremendous. When that interview ended, I knew we had an interview, we had him on tape, but we did not have the interview. And I went up to him, and I said, “Edgar, you know, you’ve never told the truth of your story. I’m a filmmaker. We want to get to your truth.” He said, “What are you doing tomorrow morning?” We were invited over to this house, and that turned into five months of interviews.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in the documentary, Edgar Ray Killen openly defends his segregationist views, but denies he killed the three civil rights workers.
EDGAR RAY KILLEN: A mulatto, in reality, the family don’t want him. The country don’t want him. So I am — I don’t deny, under any conditions, that I have been a segregationist. The whites that wanted to integrate so bad was because they wanted to live like the blacks generally did. Most of ‘em was as immoral as you could imagine. The blacks will very openly tell you here, “If you hadn’t been a nigger one Saturday night, you had never really lived.” Just because I don’t believe that the black and the white need to marry and mix and mingle in all their life, social and whatnot, that don’t mean I said, “Let’s go out and shoot somebody.”
JUAN GONZALEZ: I want to ask you, it’s been said that he’s a very charming individual, that he’s very likable. Talk about that contradiction between someone who seems so charming, and yet, on the other hand, can be guilty of such an inconceivable act.
MICKI DICKOFF: That’s what makes him so insidious. But you have to understand, he believes everything he says. And his ego was so big that we allowed him, because I’m sure he thought that this was an opportunity for him for the first time to tell his story — maybe he thought was manipulating us when we were doing this, but he wanted to tell that truth. And as we spent the months with him and it went on and on and on, he opened up more, and he opened up more, and he opened up more.
I think the hardest part for me, personally, as a filmmaker — I don’t think I could have done it twenty years ago, because as I was sitting across from him and things would come out of his mouth that just chilled me to the bone, and not debate him. The hardest night for me was right after Carolyn Goodman testified, and we went back, and I was trying to find some humanity in this man, because, remember, he didn’t act alone, and to say that we have justice because we put in eighty-year-old man in prison doesn’t really come close to justice. But maybe by telling the truth it gives us some justice. Anyway, Carolyn had testified. This was something she had been waiting for for her whole life, and it was a very emotional testimony. So that night, I thought, he’s got to feel something. OK? And I thought, what could I ask him to see that he had some feelings for a mother losing a child? And I finally I said, “Edgar, I know you think that they shouldn’t have been here and they were outsiders and they did all these things, but can’t you feel sorry for a mother losing a child?” And his response was, “Well, maybe if she were a good Christian.” That was the hardest moment for me not to get out of the chair.
But, you know, we did exactly what we told him that we were doing, and that was telling the truth, and to make sure that he wasn’t the ultimate villain of the story, because if it wasn’t for the governor and it wasn’t for the Sovereignty Commission and it wasn’t for all the rich white folks who patted him on the back, this could never have happened.
AMY GOODMAN: This is another clip of Neshoba, beginning with Barbara Chaney Dailey, the sister of James and Ben Chaney, talking about Edgar Ray Killen.
BARBARA CHANEY DAILEY: They should hang him. Whatever — however they kill them in Mississippi, that’s the way he should die. Actually, I’d like him buried alive in a dam, if you want me to tell you. Who the hell he think he is to take somebody’s life? Who died and made him God? And I would like him to tell me what made him think he can kill somebody and get away with it.
EDGAR RAY KILLEN: I’m not a murderer. Right now I’m the illegal Mississippi official sacrificial lamb.
UNIDENTIFIED: I say sacrificial goat. Now, if you’re talking about sacrificial lambs, those three young men — Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman — were the sacrificial lambs.
EDGAR RAY KILLEN: Sometimes I saw the national news media gets here when they’re being driven away. They snap the Ten Commandments, and they try to be sarcastic about it, but we feel proud that they got it. We really believe in the Ten Commandments.
ANGELA LEWIS: There is no bigger picture of hypocrisy than the Ten Commandments sitting in front of his house. The Ten Commandments are what God is going to judge us by. There is no misunderstanding in “Thou shalt not kill,” whether it’s black, white, Jew, Communist. He played God. I think he bought into his own image. And so, the men in this area looked up to him. That was him in '64.
J.D. KILLEN: I've known him all my life. He was a friend of my father. In this part of the country, there is no misconception about Edgar Ray, except that he talks too much. But as for the world, he’s been made out to be the baddest of the bad.
AMY GOODMAN: And that was a J.D. Killen, a good friend of Edgar Ray Killen. And before that, Angela, the daughter of James Chaney, who doesn’t talk about this case very much. She lives in Meridian. We wanted to go back to Jerry Mitchell very quickly to find out about the other people involved in the killing of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner. Edgar Killen just went to jail for — in the last few years. What about them? They’re free.
JERRY MITCHELL: Right, right. There are four suspects that are still left in the case: Olen Burrage, who owned the property where they were buried; Richard Willis who was a police officer in those days — and I just did a story the other day about the fact that FBI documents document that he assaulted at least a dozen African American men back in those days; Pete Harris, who is another Klansman from Meridian, Mississippi; and then Jimmie Snowden, who was a part of the killing party that went out that night and killed these kids. So those are the four men, the four suspects that are still alive today, and I’ve — as for me, I’m continuing to write about.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben, why does this matter that these men be pursued?
BEN CHANEY: Well, they committed murder. And if we don’t prosecute those people who committed murder, regardless there’s no statute of limitations on murder, then we leave it open for other people to commit these type of crimes and get away with it. The justice system has to work. We all live in America, so it has to work. And in order to make it work, we cannot let a group of people get away, regardless who they are, who commit such crimes. They have to be prosecuted.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And David, even in the case of Killen, he was only convicted for manslaughter, not murder, although he got a significant sentence. But what is your sense about the necessity for everyone being — who was involved, who’s still alive, being prosecuted?
DAVID GOODMAN: Well, you have to sort of go back to the time of what was going on. And the majority of people in America are white. And I thought I was well educated at the time, even though I was seventeen. Of course, when you’re seventeen, you think you know everything. But I didn’t have a clue of what went on in this country in many areas. I didn’t understand racism. And the majority of white people in this country didn’t understand it, until they were confronted, as Rita said, with two white kids getting killed, and they said, “Gee, this could happen to my kid.” So how is that, which happened almost fifty years ago, relevant to today? We have a media that doesn’t educate us and/or we don’t — aren’t conscious about what’s going on. We’re concerned, naturally, about our own families, paying the rent.
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
DAVID GOODMAN: And this is a way to learn from the past about how we need to pay attention to what’s going on today.
AMY GOODMAN: [David] Goodman, Ben Chaney, Micki Dickoff, Jerry Mitchell and Bruce Watson, thanks so much for joining us.