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Mississippi Burning at 50: Relatives of Civil Rights Workers Look Back at Murders that Shaped an Era

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This week marks the 50th anniversary of the murders of three young civil rights workers who traveled to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, the historic campaign to register African-American voters. On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, Andy Goodman and Michael Schwerner went missing after they visited a church in Neshoba County, Mississippi, which the Ku Klux Klan had bombed because it was going to be used as a Freedom School. Forty-four days after the trio’s disappearance, FBI agents found their bodies buried in an earthen dam. During the six-week search, the bodies of nine black men were also dredged out of local swamps. The murders in Mississippi outraged the nation and propelled the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. We are joined by family members of two of the victims: Rev. Julia Chaney-Moss, who was 17 years old when her brother was killed; Angela Lewis, Chaney’s daughter, born just 10 days before his death; and David Goodman, president of the Andrew Goodman Foundation, named after his brother.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We spend the rest of the hour on voting rights. June 21st marked the 50th anniversary of the murders of three young civil rights workers who traveled to Mississippi for Freedom Summer in 1964. The historic campaign to register African-American voters is chronicled in a new documentary called Freedom Summer that aired on PBS’s American Experience this week. This is the trailer.

JUDGE TOM P. BRADY: I don’t want the nigger, as I have known him and contacted him during my lifetime, to control the making of a law that controls me, to control the government under which I live.

UNIDENTIFIED: I don’t think people understand how violent Mississippi was. If black people try and vote, they can get hurt or killed.

FREEDOM SUMMER VOLUNTEER: You’re not a registered voter, you’re not a first-class citizen, man.

UNIDENTIFIED: They would say, “You’re right, boy. We should be registered to vote. But I ain’t going down there and messing with them white people.”

BOB MOSES: We hope to send into Mississippi this summer upwards of 1,000 students from all around the country who will engage in Freedom Schools, voter registration activity, and open up Mississippi to the country.

GOV. ROSS BARNETT: We face absolute extinction of all we hold dear. We must be strong enough to crush the enemy.

REPORTER: The three civil rights workers who disappeared in Mississippi last Sunday night still have not been heard from.

UNIDENTIFIED: It was always in the back of everybody’s minds that bad things were going to happen. But if you cared about this country and cared about democracy, then you had to go down there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the first day of Freedom Summer in 1964 began with the disappearances of the young civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. It was on June 21st, 1964, that the men went missing after they visited a church in Neshoba County, Mississippi, which the Ku Klux Klan had bombed because it was going to be used as a Freedom School. This clip from the documentary Neshoba: The Price of Freedom picks up the story. We hear from retired FBI agent Jim Ingram and reporter Jerry Mitchell. It begins with former U.S. Assistant Attorney General John Doar.

JOHN DOAR: 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 35 miles from Meridian to Philadelphia, then 12 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: 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, the deputy sheriff, saw them and stopped them, and he takes them into the jail. So, somehow, someway, the message gets out to the Klan, and then they have to organize.

JERRY MITCHELL: 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: And 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.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from the documentary Neshoba: The Price of Freedom.

Even after the attack on Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, more than 700 students came to the state to register voters. Forty-four days after the trio disappeared, FBI agents found their bodies buried in an earthen dam. During the six-week search, the bodies of nine black men were also dredged out of local swamps. The murders in Mississippi outraged the nation, propelled the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

For more, we’re joined by family members of two of the victims. In Jackson, Mississippi, we’re joined by Reverend Julia Chaney-Moss. She was 17 years old in 1964 when her brother James Chaney was murdered. Also in Jackson, Angela Lewis, the daughter of James Chaney. She was born just 10 days after he was killed by the Klan. And here in New York, David Goodman, the brother of Andrew Goodman, murdered along with Chaney and Mickey Schwerner in Mississippi in 1964. He, too, was 17 years old when his older brother Andrew was killed. He’s president of the Andrew Goodman Foundation. And his mother, Carolyn Goodman, recently published a book—it was published posthumously—called My Mantelpiece: A Memoir of Survival and Social Justice.

We welcome all of you to Democracy Now! You have all been spending time in Mississippi now—Angela, you live there—relating what’s happening today around voting rights to what’s happening 50 years ago. But first, David—and then I want to ask each of you—when did you hear what had happened to your brother?

DAVID GOODMAN: Well, he was missing on June 21st, but we didn’t know he was dead for 44 days. And the FBI found their bodies in the afternoon of August 4th, 1964. I was at home by myself. My parents had gone out that evening to a concert. It was the first time they actually went out. And I believe Lee White, who was assistant to President Johnson, actually called our house to tell us that they found the bodies.

AMY GOODMAN: I think it was Bill Moyers who actually got the call, right, from Mississippi saying they had found them, when he was in the White House. Julia Chaney-Moss, can you tell us where you were on that day when you learned?

REV. JULIA CHANEY-MOSS: I was home with my—with my mother, my sister and my brother Ben.

AMY GOODMAN: And the White House called?

REV. JULIA CHANEY-MOSS: No. We did not get a presidential call.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, how did you learn of what had happened?

REV. JULIA CHANEY-MOSS: Well, I’ll preface it a bit with, before they left, before Mickey, Jay and Andy left, Jay had said to us to tell my mother that if they weren’t back at a certain hour, and given here a telephone tree, list of phone numbers that they should start—that we should start calling. So when they weren’t back, we began to make the call. It was not until the next day that—well, that we were officially informed that they were missing, because they weren’t able to be tracked anywhere.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David Goodman, for those viewers and listeners who are younger, who don’t—weren’t alive back in 1964, could you talk about how big of a story this was nationwide, the impact it had on the country? I mean, some historians have said 1964 was a year that changed America.

DAVID GOODMAN: Yeah, well, I was 17 years old. I had just graduated from high school. I mean, my grandfather used to say, “If you have a question, ask a 17-year-old. They know everything.” Well, I mean, turns out I didn’t know very much at all. But I learned a lot quickly in a way that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. And the story was huge. It was a huge story. I’ve been told that for the 44 days they were missing, it was the most watched and listened to and read about story internationally, even, because, as I subsequently read, the rest of the world viewed the United States, understandably, as the leading world democracy and could not believe that in many of our states we had policemen murdering civilians, and with a history of getting away with it, in certain instances, white policemen and white people murdering black people in certain states. And it was a shock. And this event was kind of a level of—a secondary level of shock to me and to the nation, to realize that white people could also be murdered because of black people, which had almost never happened before. So, it was an international story, it was a national story. And a really sad part of the story, in my opinion, the way I feel, is that it took two white kids to wake up white America to what was going on in our country.

AMY GOODMAN: I just visited your house where you grew up, where, after you learned of the murder of your brother and James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner, Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King came to pay condolences to your family.

DAVID GOODMAN: Yeah, we were really honored. It was after they found the bodies, so Dr. King and Coretta King came to express their deep regrets. And it was quite an event for me, personally.

AMY GOODMAN: Angela Lewis, you were not born yet. How did you learn the story of your father? You were born 10 days after James Chaney—after 10 days—when were you born, Angela?

ANGELA LEWIS: I was born June the 11th of ’64, and I was actually just 11 days old—10 days old.

AMY GOODMAN: So how did you come to understand, as you grew up, what happened to your dad?

ANGELA LEWIS: Mainly through reading for myself and through talking to my grandmother, my father’s mother. And, you know, had a couple of aunts that would tell me bits and pieces, but I was not privileged to a lot of information about my father.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So your mother, for many years, did not tell you what had happened?


AMY GOODMAN: So talk about, in learning for yourself and talking to your grandmother, how that shaped you and your work now around voting rights and around racial equality. You live in Meridian, Mississippi.

ANGELA LEWIS: Well, it gives me a great appreciation for not only the sacrifice that my father made, but others, as well. And it gives me the same motivation and desire to want to help, you know, young people and to just try to make people’s lives better. So, mostly, it’s just an appreciation. And I think I share the same passion that my father did, when it comes to just wanting to help people to live a better life.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Julia Chaney-Moss, I wanted to ask you, the long period of time before anybody was found guilty of these murders, could you talk about that and the impact that finally there was a conviction in the case?

REV. JULIA CHANEY-MOSS: Well, it was. It was a terrifically long period of time. And life goes on. You continue to live, even when there is an absence in your life, a present absence in your life. You continue to live. And once there was—we had—in fact, we had no idea until we were called and asked and given information about the pending pursuit of indictment of Preacher Killen. Prior to that, there seemed to have been nothing, you know, really occurring. Once that happened, again, because there was no precedence, nothing had happened before of this nature, seriously, and it was difficult, a little difficult, to rejoice or be happy about this, but to hear this, with temerity, and to just be—to be OK and kind of in waiting to see how this would unfold and what would occur.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’re also going to be joined by Jerry Mitchell, who was one of those who helped to lead to the indictment and conviction of Preacher Killen, but I wanted to go back to the day of the funeral in Mississippi. I’m sure, Reverend—were you at this funeral? Were you at the funeral, along with your brother Ben?

REV. JULIA CHANEY-MOSS: Unfortunately, unfortunately, I was not at the funeral. I was sick. I was home. But, yes, everyone left to the funeral, and there is no emptiness that can compare to the emptiness I felt, and being in the house and just wandering, knowing what was occurring—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted—


AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Dave Dennis, who led the Congress of Racial Equality operations in Mississippi, speaking at your brother’s funeral, at James Chaney’s funeral. This is from the documentary Freedom Summer.

DAVE DENNIS: I want to talk about is really what I really grieve about. I don’t grieve for Chaney, because the fact I feel that he lived a fuller life than many of us will ever live. I feel that he’s got his freedom, and we’re still fighting for it.

BRUCE WATSON: Dave Dennis’s speech was a turning point in the summer, because everybody wanted him to say the usual things that you would say at a funeral, and Dave Dennis just couldn’t do it. He challenged the people at the memorial, and he challenged the whole movement.

DAVE DENNIS: You see, we’re all tired. 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…

All of the deep emotions, things I’d been going through leading up to this particular moment, began to come out, boil up in me, you might call this. And then looking out there and seeing Ben Chaney, James Chaney’s little brother, I lost it. I totally just lost it.

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!

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was David Dennis of the Congress of Racial Equality at the funeral of James Chaney. Angela Lewis, I’d like to ask you, how has Mississippi changed in all of these years? And obviously we just heard the news in the last few days of many African Americans voting for Thad Cochran, the Republican, against a tea party in his own Republican primary. Could you talk a little bit about how the state has changed?

ANGELA LEWIS: I do feel that the state has changed a lot; of course, we’re not where we were in the '60s. But there's still a lot of work to be done, because now we have a generation of young people that are apathetic, because we don’t have the same challenges that we had then, so the challenge now becomes to keep our young people educated and interested in moving forward and just being aware of what’s going on in society and being a part of that.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about how these 50th anniversary activities that have been going on all throughout Mississippi—David, you’ve just come up from Mississippi. Julia Chaney-Moss, you live in New Jersey, and you’re helping to care for your brother Ben, who was at the funeral, but he’s ill now. You’ve gone down to Mississippi. Rita Schwerner, the wife, the widow of Mickey Schwerner, has been in Mississippi. And there’s a whole conference going on in Mississippi around Freedom Summer. How is this galvanizing, this summer, around voting rights?

REV. JULIA CHANEY-MOSS: Certainly, seeing just the volume and group of young people and their energy, commitment and enthusiasm is really heartening, and it’s really very hopeful. The challenges that lay ahead of these young people and the fact that they are so eagerly willing to inform themselves, to empower themselves and step up to the plate really portends for a future that is much brighter than the existence of Mississippi today.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did your brother risk his life, Julia Chaney-Moss? He knew the incredible danger, even more so than the white activists, of course, because he was African-American.

REV. JULIA CHANEY-MOSS: My brother was at a crossroads. At 17, we’re at a crossroads in our lives. We’re looking at our future. We’re looking at our options and the directions that we’re choosing. He made a choice. He made a very conscious choice, becoming involved with the student group and the NAACP. He wore a paper NAACP button to school, and he was expelled by the principal. And he did not stop. At the juncture that he had decided to become further involved, he had had a conversation with my mother. And his burning question, I think the driving force of his life, was: Why do we have to live this way? So that in asking that question and having those conversations with my mother, he began to share with her the choices he had made and the work that he was about to begin. And my mother, in her formidable wisdom, also shared with him. I heard her say, “Boy, do you know what you’re about to do?” And he said, “Yes, ma’am, I know what I’m about to do.” And she said, “You know you’re putting your life on the line, and you can get killed for this?” He says, “Yes, ma’am, I know that I can.” My mother did not forbid him. She did not, in any way, try to impede him. She was not delighted by his choice, but she certainly supported his choice.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for joining us and traveling the hour and a half from Meridian, Mississippi, to Jackson to be with us today, Reverend Julia Chaney-Moss, sister of James Chaney, and Angela Lewis, James Chaney’s daughter, born just a few days before James Chaney was murdered. David Goodman is here in New York. He’s staying with us for this last segment. We’ll also be joined from Jackson by Jerry Mitchell, the investigative reporter who helped bring one of the Klansmen to justice for the murder of the three civil rights activists. And we’ll talk about voting rights in states today. Thanks so much for being with us. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a moment.

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